Post-classical history

§ Night-Wanderings: Reflections on Old Age

Only a few years had passed284 when I saw Jawad again in Damascus, in the year 534 (1139). He had become a feed-merchant, selling barley and hay. He had grown so old that he looked like a squeezed-out water-bag, one who could barely defend his stores from the mice, much less from any man. I paused in wonder at his earlier condition, at how his present condition had affected him, and what his own longevity had produced in his current state.

I did not then realize that the disease of age is vast, afflicting all over whom Death has passed. Now that I have ascended to my ninetieth year, to its very peak, I find that the passage of years has left me weak. I have become like Jawad, the seller of feed, not like the generous host,285 profligate indeed. Bent with weakness to the ground I nearly touch, my limbs twist into each [161] other, I have aged so much. My present self I do not recognize, my past I smother with dismal sighs. I composed the following in description of my current state:

When I finally reached the stage in life of which I dreamed,

I found I yearned now only for death.

Longevity has not left me with any force

With which to fight off the hostile onslaught of Time.

My strength has become weakness, betrayed by my best advisers,

My eyes and my ears, now that I have ascended to this height.

When I rise, I feel upon me the burden

Of a mountain-range; when I walk, I walk as one in fetters.

I creep about, a cane clutched in my hand

Whose custom in war was to wield a spear or an Indian blade.

I spend my nights on downy pillows, sleepless,

As wide awake as if I had made my bed on sharpened stones.

Man, in life, repeats his cycle:

The moment he finishes, he becomes as he was when he began.

I also composed the following verse in Egypt, in condemnation of a life of rest and retreat, for how quickly it passes, how fleet:

Just look at how the vicissitudes of Fate have taught me,

Now that my hair has turned grey, new habits unlike the old.

In the changes wrought by Fate there is an example for contemplation.

For is there any condition that the passage of days does not alter?

I was always the firebrand in war: whenever it sputtered out

I fanned the flames with the striking of swords on our enemies’ heads.

My concern has ever been personal combat with my rivals, whom I considered

But simple prey, such that they shook in terror of me.

More encompassing in fear than black of night, more reckless in battle

Than a flood, more dauntless on the battlefield than Destiny.

But now I have become like some soft young girl languishing in her bed

Of stuffed cushions, behind screens, behind curtains.

I have almost rotted through from all this rest just as

An Indian blade rusts as it abides in its sheath.

Having once dressed in the mail of war, I wrap myself now in robes

Of fine Dabiqi cloth – shame on me, shame on this cloth!

A life de luxe has never been my dream or my goal;

Comfort is not my concern or my business.

I could never be satisfied with a glory gained through ease,

Nor with the highest rank granted without shattering swords and spears.

I used to think that the novelty of Time would never wear thin and that its strength would never become weak again. Indeed, when I returned to Syria, I hoped my days would be as they were when I left – that after me Time forgot them, of changes bereft. When I did return, the promises of my desires proved pure badinage, my hopes and dreams but a shining mirage. O God! Forgive me for including this parenthetical digression: it was but a sigh of anguish that fends off depression. To important matters let me now turn back, and leave off my wanderings into night so black.

§ Fate can neither be Hastened nor Slowed

[162] If only the heart could be made clean of sin’s filthy sheen and entrusted to the Knower of the unseen, for riding forth into war’s perils – you will have reckoned – will not shorten your term by even a second.

On the day when we encountered the Isma’ilis in the citadel of Shayzar, I saw in those events, indeed, an example from which to derive a lesson that clarifies, for intelligent brave just as for ignorant knave, that the duration of life has been already appointed and made, and one’s fate can neither be hastened nor delayed.

It happened that day, that after being done with the war, someone at the edge of the citadel cried, ‘Wait, here’s some more!’ I had with me a group of my comrades bearing their weapons, so we rushed over to the man who had cried out.

‘What’s all this about?’ we asked.

‘There are sounds of the enemy coming from over there,’ he replied.

We all crossed over to an empty, darkened stable and went inside. We discovered that there were two armed men there and killed them both. We also found one of our own comrades who had been killed, but he was lying on top of something. Lifting him up, we discovered another Batini, who had wrapped himself up in a cloth like a shroud and covered himself with the dead body of our comrade. So we lifted off the body of our comrade and killed the man hiding underneath him and placed the body of our comrade, covered in terrible wounds, inside the nearby mosque, never doubting that he was dead, since he neither stirred nor breathed. I swear by God that I even nudged his head with my foot as he lay there on the floor of the mosque, and we never doubted that he was dead. The poor fellow had been passing that stable and had heard something, so he stuck his head in to investigate. But one of the enemy pulled him in and they stabbed him with their knives until they thought he was dead. But God, may He be exalted, decreed that, once those wounds on his neck and body were all stitched up, he would recover and return to the state of health that he had previously enjoyed. Blessed be God who determines all fates and fixes our destiny and our life’s term!

I witnessed something similar. It happened when the Franks (God curse them) made a raid against us during the last third of the night. We mounted up, intending to go in pursuit of them, but my uncle Sultan (may God have mercy upon him) [163] prevented us from doing so, saying, ‘A raid conducted at night? It’s a trick!’286 But some of our infantry left the town in pursuit of them anyway, without our knowing. On their way back, the Franks fell upon them to kill them, but a few escaped.

The next morning, as I was standing in Bandar Qanin, a village near town, I caught sight of three people approaching: two of them looked human enough, but the middle one, his face was not like the face of a man. As they got closer to us, it became clear that the one in the middle had been hit by a Frankish sword in the middle of his nose and his face was cut through clear to his ears. Half of his face was so loose that it hung down to his chest. Between the two halves of his face was a cut almost as wide as a hand’s span, and so he walked between the other two men. He entered town and the surgeon stitched up his face and treated his wound. The wound eventually closed up and he recovered, returning to his previous state of health until he died of natural causes in his own bed. He used to sell work-animals and was named Ibn Ghazi the Scarred, but he only got that name after he received that blow.

Thus, let no one assume that death is hastened by facing straits that are dire, nor is it delayed if you choose to retire; indeed the example of my long life provides lessons for you to acquire. For how many terrors have I faced, how many dangers and fears have I out-raced? Horsemen I have battled, lions I have grappled, struck have I been by blades, run through have I been by spears, pelted have I been with arrows and with stones, all while I from Fate was like a stout fortress without fear, that is, until I completed my ninetieth year. For then I came to see health and lingering ease like the Prophet (upon him be peace): ‘Health suffices as its own disease.’ Indeed, the result of my escape from those frights is something more daunting than all those earlier battles and fights. Far easier is death at an army’s head than the taxations of a lingering life of pain and dread. For the passage of time has removed, from my life’s long measure, all objects of joy and gentle pleasure. Now this does misery’s dust-storm obscure: an ample life, once so pure. I am as I once described in verse:

After eighty years, Time begins to work its mischief on my constitution:

The weakness of my foot, the trembling of my hand, they grieve me.

Even as I write, my lines seem troubled

Like the writing of one with hands terror-stricken, palsied.

I wonder at this feebleness in my hands as they lift up a pen

When previously they had shattered spears in the hearts of lions.

If I walk, it is with cane in hand, bemired

Are my legs as if I waded through a mud-soaked plain.

[164] So say to him who hopes his life will be a long one:

‘These are the consequences of long life and age.’

For weakness and feebleness have replaced my power, all sweetness in life has ended and reached its hour. This long sojourn among men has me bent like an infant, just as the flame that dispels darkness is itself made dark in an instant. I have become just as I describe in the following poem:

Destiny has forsaken me, leaving me like

An exhausted pack-camel abandoned in the wastes.

My eighty years have sapped all my strength

So that when I try to stand, I am broken.

I perform my prayers seated, for bowing

If I tried it, would be, for me, impossible.

This condition has warned me

That a journey is coming, and its time is nigh.

The weakness that old age brings keeps me now from serving kings. I no longer darken their door and rely upon them no more. I have resigned from their service and have returned what they sent of their favour. For I realize that the weakness of one so worn has never the duties of service lightly borne. What an old man can offer, it’s clear, will never be bought by an amir. I have thus taken to my residence, letting only my obscurity give me precedence.

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