The Son of Lîlame

The Nights of Tino of Baghdad cover image

As you are surely aware by now, I have a small press called Rixdorf Editions which issues works by the under-heralded visionaries of Wilhelmine Germany. So far we have published five original translations of titles from the period: Ilse Frapan’s ecstatic novel of righteous female rage, We Women Have no Fatherland, August Endell’s inspiring study of the urban environment, The Beauty of the Metropolis, Anna Croissant-Rust’s paradoxically vibrant fiction collection Death, Franziska zu Reventlow’s strange and wondrous short stories in The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe and – our bestselling title – Magnus Hirschfeld’s Berlin’s Third Sex, a portrait of early 20th century queer Berlin that could have been written last week.

The next print title is Hermann Bahr’s landmark study Antisemitism, first issued in German in 1894, which is coming out in October. But before that we have a special, PDF-only title out right now. And let’s just say if you ever wanted to dip into these works we have really lowered the bar; by the simple expedient of entering your email address for the Rixdorf Editions mailing list we will send you the PDF for free.

The title in question is The Nights of Tino of Baghdad by Else Lasker-Schüler, in my translation. Else’s popped up a few times on Strange Flowers (here for instance, or here). Originally issued in 1907, her Nights is a slim collection of loosely episodic pieces traversing an “Orient” of the author’s imagination in a style that is equal parts holy scripture and absurdist grotesque. Were further encouragement needed, I present to you one of the tales below, “The Son of Lîlame”, in which the book – otherwise set in an indeterminate period in approximations of “Oriental” locations – takes a detour to Berlin. To me this compellingly odd tale almost has something of Dr. Seuss about it. See what you think. And if you’d like to read more, just go here, enter your email address and it will be on its way to you. And if you’re on Twitter, as well as following Rixdorf Editions, take a look at the #WITMonth hashtag which is active throughout August. It celebrates women in translation, while also highlighting their under-representation among the foreign literature that is published in English.

The Son of Lîlame

When Lîlame, the wife of the Grand Vizier was still carrying little Mêhmêd in her womb, it transpired that a band of jugglers with light blue flax wigs made mischief beneath her window. And when Mêhmêd was born there were two tiny pale blue woolly hairs curled up in the middle of his bald head. It is said that his mother Lîlame turned melancholy at this, and his father, the Grand Vizier, summoned all the barbers in the land to the palace, but as they gathered around his son’s scalp and its pale blue tufts they were perplexed. And Mêhmêd turned bitter at the world as he first walked the streets of Constantinople with his governor. The rich and the poor clutched their fat and gaunt bellies in mirth. And some of them even turned violent and tugged at the tips of his light blue curls. But as Mêhmêd grew older, he found an inexplicable appeal in striding through the mirthful crowds. His curls of blue stood out boldly from the lemon hue of his turban. And every year came the day of the great beheading. That was when all who could not keep from mirth at the sight of him were invited to the wide forecourt of his palace. The son of the Grand Vizier would sit there in an iron chair, forcing his victims to disport themselves as improperly as they had before him on the streets of Constantinople. But the people would tremble in distress, and the children would howl, for on a bench lay curved butcher’s knives like crescent moons, in every size, to fit every neck. But none of them was ever blooded, for Mêhmêd would bring the agony of the guilty to an end by sending them back to their homes before execution. And soon they regarded the Grand Vizier’s son with shy glances. The merrymakers hid their faces when they saw him approaching from afar. And the old women who sold spices and herbs in the public squares even whispered of the miraculous power of his holy, pale-blue hair. Yet Mêhmêd was bitter at the world. But because he loved it so much, he began to whiten his extraordinary hair with liquid lime. And as I saw him doing this one evening, I went to him in the garden where he was sitting on the edge of the reflective lake, and his head was like a particle of Heaven that had fallen into the little body of water. ‘What is my dear cousin Mêhmêd doing?’ And I prevented him from continuing with his plan, for in the glow of his pale blue hair I divined the will of Allah. ‘Mêhmêd, you are a wise man and you are a fool, for you do not know it. And were you to have your father’s black hair or the golden brown curls of Lîlame your mother, the same fate would have befallen you.’ I pointed to the lake. ‘Your forehead is inscribed in gold, how should the ignorant interpret its words, and your eyes see into another world.’ And that evening we tried it out, he hid his pale blue hair deep in his turban and through my veil I saw quite clearly how passers-by nudged each other curiously and cramped in mirth at the sight of him. But since then Mêhmêd just walks up and down before my barred harem window until I join him in the garden. His pale blue curls are no longer cut according to the custom of the land, they have already reached his loins, and one night at the reflective lake he revealed to me that he was inspired by the deep awareness that he was indeed a wise man and greater than all his fellow men, greater than the moon and stars. And he could only explain his indisputable enlightenment by the fact that he was a twin of Allah. And no longer would he walk the streets of Constantinople, trampling the little piles of people, that was not equal to his wisdom. He summoned surveyors from different lands to determine the height of the granite pillars on which the roof of his palace rests. He entered into wagers, and of course he always won. After all he was considerably taller than the stone pillars. And the pyramids on the far side of the river he built himself from the building blocks of the harem children. And the mighty mosque cupola was a mere dot beside his head. And his father, the Grand Vizier, took delight in the merry humour of his otherwise brooding son; his jests were even better than the jugglers leaping before the palace. But every day I grew more melancholy, like Lîlame, his mother. And it was early in the morning, the priests had not yet uttered their prayers when I heard Mêhmêd’s voice before my window; he was waving a newspaper triumphantly in the air like a victory banner. And he barely allowed me enough time to read the great news. It concerned a monstrous great elephant from eastern India. At the moment it was in the imperial city of the Germans, in the Occident. – Twenty-five black servants and twenty-five servants of his colour were to ready themselves for the journey, as well as the highest-ranking men of the palace, and I, his cousin, who had first recognised his wisdom. On the voyage across the waters, Mêhmêd conducted himself in conspicuous silence, only now and then would a triumphant smile rise as fleet as leagues across his face and transfigure his pale blue hair. – Fenced in by three iron bars we saw Goliathofoles, the giant monster, with elephants in other cages shaking their heads as they beheld their neighbour. It was about to slurp down two barrels of water. On petition, the capital had made available the great drum of the gasworks for the esteemed guest – and the west of the city was cast into darkness. Goliathofoles was so tall – diligently one must report that snow lay on its head. But nevertheless it knew how to turn the organ with his trunk, and especially to beat the drum. Today, however, it resolutely refused to offer its tricks to the public, despite the numerous sugar loaves standing in readiness as reward. Mêhmêd’s slender limbs clenched with impatience, and the twenty-five black servants and twenty-five servants of his colour harnessed their full strength to thwart their master’s intention of entering the cage. He whistled cooing sounds through pursed lips, he tried to encourage the unruly giant animal. He threw biscuit crumbs into its cavernous open mouth. He crouched ever smaller so that Goliathofoles could hear the encouraging drum roll of his hands on the buttocks of one of his servants. ‘Good chiiild, good chiiild…!’

The people of the foreign capital had never before entertained such a delightful prince. But my heart ran with painful tears …………

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