I racconti del Premio Energheia Europa

Once Upon a King_Widad Samman, Libano.

mare_Premio Energheia Libano 2011.

The recent events that have been invading the Middle Eastern countries, starting with the revolutions, passing by the dominoes effect toppling presidents one after the other, up till the unbelievably inexorable rulers that would rather die before they relinquish their old wrinkled poor thrones, pulled to my memory, back from its bottomless depths, an old fairytale, told long ago, I might say to the vanishing winds…

“Once upon a time, there was a far unheard-of oasis, in the middle of a desert, in the middle of nowhere. It was a very ordinary oasis, though inhabited by extraordinary people, for they had agreed on such a peculiar statement, “After one year of governance, the king shall be executed.” That was no obstacle for fearless ambitions though. People kept nominating themselves for power, they attained kingship, ruled for one year, and then were beheaded, with not a single nerve of hesitancy! Years went by, hundreds of years more, and the statement passed, intact, from one generation to another. No one ever objected, and no king was ever spared … Until the day came, when no one dared! For in that year, no more ambitious people breathed. But as the people cannot live forever without a ruler, and the laws of the oasis are sacred not to be ever changed or broken, they had to choose a king by any possible way.

Most extraordinarily, on that very day, a knock quivered the rusty gate of the oasis. The gatekeeper, who had been sleeping ever since the dawn of time, sprang up into the air! No one had ever knocked that door before. No one imagined it even knocks! The breeze of suspense flew to reach every living soul in the oasis. People emerged from every corner, seeking comprehension of the mystery. As the knocks grew louder, the people denser and the suspense more tense, the opening of the gate broke the thrilling silence. Right in front of them, there in the gate’s opening, laid a pale shabby lad on the back of a white Arabian horse. People rushed spontaneously to his aid. Some fetched a doctor, others some food to supply the drained blood in his veins and water to extinguish the craving flames of thirst blazing in his throat. All was left to arrange was a free bed for the night, but which actually did not exist. There were no hotels in the oasis, for no visitors were usually expected. And to have an extra bed at home was not the kind of thought to cross any one’s mind living in such a place. The only free bed that had no owner to belong to at that moment was the Kings Bed. They had no other choice. That night, after the lad had lain asleep in the holy bed, the people of the oasis gathered down the veranda of the King’s room. That night, exceptionally enough, curious whispers sparked across the eventide, filling the air…

The golden rays of the morning were bright enough to wake the mysterious stranger up of his most beautiful dream. Although disappointed to leave the comfy royal bed, he felt perky and ready to continue his endless journey. He headed towards the velvet scarlet chesterfield where his yesterday’s-worn-out-stained abba was laid as clean and neat as it had never been before. Confidently, he pulled it on and marched towards the window that had a view over the vast oasis. It surprised him to see that such a beautiful and peaceful piece of land was so much neglected. He stood there for a while trying to paint the view with more vivid colors. He knew it did not concern him, but it wrought in his heart a mournful sorrow watching the few pale people in the streets walking like lifeless spirits in an exceptional Eden-like garden. Sighing helplessly, he turned his back to the window and headed towards the door, mourning the loss of an amazing piece of heaven in the hands of a careless unaware people. A tiny spark of thought flashed in the back of his mind, it kept messing with his senses as it grew bigger and brighter. But as soon as he made his way out of the Royal Castle and into the souks, it exploded in the middle of a crowd. There he stood, with fervent eyes and cried with all his ardent might: “Dear kind people, you look so miserable and frail; your life is a hapless tale, though you have got a unique chance, you are endowed with a bountiful land. You can make of your story a comemorable one, if you stood hand in hand. You have shown generosity to the stranger and the weak, you can prove to be as good to your worthy country. Toil, and Let it be an oasis of hope that streams life across the desert of despair”. He felt the blood rushing fast through his veins and he could hear his heartbeats echoing amid the cries of the agitated crowd. He couldn’t figure out what they were saying, or what their facial expressions meant, but the regards of their eyes felt like spears aimed directly at his face. Has he gone so far? Should he have hold himself back and put out the fire of zealous jealousy, aroused by his sincere loyalty to the beauty of nature, before he let it out? Did he sound like an impertinent ingrate who has just chucked away all their kindness and obligation by a few unpremeditated words? There he stood, glued to the spot, with blurry wild thoughts storming his head, until a brisk unexpected gesture of the crowd pulled him out of the abyss of confusion into a surreal realm. His heart missed a beat when within a fraction of a second the noisy crowd swarmed towards him and tossed him up in the air! Then on the bed of their shoulders did he land and sway, while they chanted loudly “Rejoice O men of Almavora with a promising new dawn!”, “A king has been sent to you from Heavens!” “It is an omen! It’s a divine sign!” Their jubilant cheers reverberated through the air like the chants of victorious warriors, of whom he was the long-awaited champion leader. He couldn’t hide the triumphant grin that mounted his mouth spontaneously; “all they needed was a little spark, to bring them back to life” he thought.

They did not wait for the next day to crown him king. The coronation ceremony was held in a few hours. But before proceeding with the traditional rites they thought it prudent to inform him of the Oasis’s sacred law, “After one year of governance, the king shall be executed”, which they recited with anxious hesitancy. At first, the stranger was dumbfounded, just as anyone would have been if they were in his shoes. His excitement faded and he instantly paled on hearing the shocking completely irrational statement. But he was a quick-witted man. And he was not the kind who asks why. “I’m dead sooner or later”, he thought “I should have been dead just yesterday. Besides, I could actually do in a year what I could have dreamt to do in a lifetime. After all, Living like a king for a single year is worth a thousand lived in misery and grief!” It took him no more than a second to decide. He pulled himself together at once, and firmly declared to the breathless attendees: “That makes no difference. It’s an honor to lay down my life for the sake of a people as generous and kind as you are.” At this relieving announcement the suspenseful silence chattered as the assembly applauded with eager satisfaction. In a matter of a few hours the mysterious un-named stranger was crowned King of Almavora Oasis. “Pinch me, I’m dreaming!” he said, as he threw himself on the Royal Bed.

Truly, a new dawn broke with the hopeful sunrays and optimistic birdsongs that filled the air of the blessed oasis of Alma. As soon as the sun was up, the king’s messengers galloped across the streets inviting the people to join the king for breakfast. Children hopped racing the wind to the open buffets that were set along the entire length of the royal courtyard. Once everyone was present and the meals were served, the king who was surprisingly still dressed in his old ragged abba rose from his seat and addressed his guest subjects with a sincere smile saying: “Good morning my friends, I have summoned you today to thank you for having accorded me your confidence. I am aware that with great power comes great responsibility. I want you to know that your beloved land is my beloved land; and your future is mine as well. I hereof assure you that you have placed them in the right hands. I promise to do my best to fulfill your expectations and wishes. With no further ado, I hope you pass by the office at the main gate to fill out some documents, on your way out ofcorse. For now, enjoy your meal!”

When the scrumptious breakfast was over, the citizens queued one after the other in front of the office. It didn’t take longer than an hour for the affair to be carried out. They had to provide only their name and their profession. Even women and children were involved. Though, those who had no specialty were asked to specify their hobbies and the things they are good at. Besides, anyone who had an idea, a complaint, a demand or a suggestion was welcome to be listened to.

The next morning, life in the oasis turned upside down. Houses were void while the streets teemed with liveliness and activity. Farmers gathered with farmers, women joined their fellow friends, and the few scribes got together and so on and so forth. Each group elected a representative for them and within a few hours, made a plan. The group representing the people fond of adventure passed by the others and asked them to write down all that they needed from abroad. They had decided to leave the oasis to explore the faraway lands. As simple as that passed the first workday and after it implementation began. Then as days and months went by, more vivacious colors added to the picture from the king’s window so that at the end of the twelfth month, the oasis of Almavora has turned into a genuine garden that pumps life in and out the revived desert. Water flowed across the oasis through the canals the citizens helped dig and in no time, peach and olive trees had flourished in the shade of the young date palms. Trade prospered fast now that most of the merchants knew how to read and write. It involved books as much as silk, wood, cattle and dates, among other materials. All the while, relationships with other oasis’s and cities blossomed promoting the constructions of roads in order to facilitate their business. Life being too short, in only one year, Almavora grew to be known as “the beating heart of the desert”.

For twelve consecutive months, nothing could hinder the course of the revival process until the knells of the forgotten ultimate day were sounded. The quiet sleepless eve of that day seemed to rest endlessly suspended in time. When at last the unsought sulky sun rose timidly behind the lustrous sand dunes, the people of Almavora emerged reluctantly from their new houses and walked slowly to the castle’s courtyard. Their eyes widened with astonishment when they saw their beloved king standing in the execution place. They dared not however bear more contact with his fixed eyes as they choked back their regretful tears. Children squeezed their parents’ hands as the headsman mounted the decapitation platform. The king kneeled modestly on the ground, held his breath and closed his eyes while the headsman raised his axe. A minute of frozen suspense elapsed without a single movement being made, until the headsman lowered down his axe and said: “I can not do it; he saved my boy’s life when he was just on the edge of death”. He backed up to hand his fellow headsman the axe and disappeared out of sight. It took one second for the other headsman to drop the axe to the ground and turn to the people saying “How do you want me to kill him when he’s the reason I have become proud to be an Almavorian?! If there is anyone amongst you who has the courage to do it himself let him show up”. He waited for a long moment observing the expression of compassion fixed on their pale features to declare with a tender smile “Some kings are meant to live forever”.