Working Title #1
Set in the twelfth century, when profound social changes ravage once peaceful and prosperous societies, the first volume explores the middle and eastern medieval world through the eyes of Munira, a woman of Arab-Persian descent and one of the last translators still active in Baghdad, and of Tomoe Gozen, one of only a handful of female samurai in Kyoto. We follow their epic struggles to preserve their humanity in the face of relentless pressures to accommodate to general social decline.
The second volume jumps back to the eighth and ninth centuries to find Munira and Tomoe’s spiritual ancestors in Persia and Japan, respectively, at the beginning of the high point in Islamic culture, the Translation Movement, and in Japanese culture, the Heian Jidai. Their lives and loves help make the history that is later to unmake the lives and loves of their descendants.
The third volume, set in Spain, the Middle East and Japan, starts with the thirteenth century’s apocalyptic opening: the Crusader sacking of Constantinople and the later Mongol destruction of what still remained of the libraries of Baghdad. In the central lands of the novel, the Fourth Crusade attempts the genocide of the spiritual inheritors of Jesus' teachings of love and the Mongols attempt the genocide of the intellectual inheritors of the Translation Movement. In the peripheral lands, the militarisation of Japan started by the Kamakura Shogunate and the assumption of absolute judicial power by the Catholic Church in Latin Christendom, force the descendants of Munira and Tomoe to find ways to think and love in a time of triumphant unthinking and unloving.
So, being sure that I’ve given nothing away, I’ll stop there …except to say, yes, it is a love story—several love stories, in fact, some obvious, others perhaps not so obvious—with plenty of action.
How I got into it...
It was October 2008 and I was trying to understand whom of Abu al-Walid ibn Rushd and Abu Ali ibn Sina was the greater philosopher. During this study I came upon the idea of these two men, each the greatest mind of his time, having it out in a debate (they lived roughly a hundred years apart). I then thought that that could make for an interesting story. This led me to thinking it might be more effective to write a story centred on one person who is linked to both men. Eventually this settled on a descendent of Ibn Sina who's a contemporary of Ibn Rushd. The differences between the two philosophers led to the different social conditions under which they had found themselves. Thus did the struggle between religion and philosophy that so characterised the end of the Islamic Golden Age become the seed that eventually matured into the twin struggle between love and law and between intellect and anti-intellect that became the Leitmotif of this book.
The character whose life came to encapsulate all these cataclysmic events turned out to be Munira, daughter of Juhanah, an unknown descendent of Abu Ali ibn Sina and one of his many women (yes, he was a bit of a floating man). Munira, being the first character I met, had to take on the responsibility of introducing me to the twelfth century mind in general, and that of a young, educated, Arab-Persian woman increasingly at odds with her society, in particular. I had no idea where to begin, eventually settling on the closest approximation I could think of.
It seemed to me that the point at which I’d have the best chance of understanding Munira would be when she is the same age as I was at the time. In her early fifties, she would be in Fez and, most fortuitously, twelfth-century Fez is still in tact today, its Medina being the most well-preserved medieval city in the world. Taking note of my own feelings in the narrow, winding, three-dimensional maze that is the Medina, I had a baseline from which I could broadly extrapolate through the many things we have in common, as well as research into the medieval conception of reality, to how she must have felt there. It turned out to be a good place to start.
My method, unclear at the start, did turn out internally coherent. While the story is emerging from within the research, I make no attempt to escape the tyranny of facts as exciting new historical connections captivate me and delight me with the implications they churn up as they ripple their way through my head. I decided, very early on, not to take liberties with (credible) history—not knowingly, anyway. So, when my research throws up phrases like, "little is known about the early life of..." or "scholarship is divided as to..." I seize upon these as licence to trawl through the human condition at will and indulge myself crafting the story, enjoying my imagined reader's reactions. Having provided the scaffolding, the particular historical facts now become unimportant and move to the wings, leaving centre-stage to the underlying historic movement, which is humans in the process of growing up. Thus does fiction, to me, having transcended facts, become objective and historically accurate.
Some of my characters are wholly fictional, while other slip into the unknown or uncertain parts of the lives of known historical figures. I've not done exhaustive academic studies, so there may well be factual inaccuracies. I welcome these being pointed out to me, even where they don't affect the story. I have, rather, researched enough to uncover real humans and hence find the story that I can thread through a latticework that readers can trust and that delights their sensibilities. Yet I still had the problem of animating my characters. The only way I could arrive at their personalities and foibles was by going amongst them and engaging with them directly. Thus began a series of letters to Munira and to Tomoe in which I simply chatted about things going on around me at the time and, in the same letters, responding to their reactions. The letters weren't planned to necessarily have a direct bearing on the story, though they did help me explore options and take decisions about these two women. They opened up many avenues of thinking that wouldn't have occurred to me otherwise. My challenge was to communicate successfully, both linguistically and emotionally with people I imagine might have been my social equivalents, had I lived in their time.
The book moved back and forth several times between a single volume and a trilogy. This reflects nothing more than my poor ability to rein in the research that was constantly tempting me down unexplored avenues and suggesting exciting new story lines. In the end, though, it was the story, rather than the research, that settled on a trilogy. While Working Title #1 is the first volume, its setting forms the climax of a much larger story. The opening part of that larger story is the subject of the second volume, while the third volume deals with life in its aftermath.
I hope you enjoy reading it.
On the shore of Lake Biwa, Thursday 21 February 1185. Our bodies back-to-back merge into a single unit of dynamic symmetry, each movement of every limb reflected in simultaneous, yet unpredictable, movement elsewhere. Neither of us can see the other, yet each knows exactly where the other is, as a reflection might perceive both itself and its source from within the mirror. We are never more than an inch apart, yet we never touch. We twist and bend and curve and reach and fold in perfect tune with each other and each part of each other until we reach such exquisite equilibrium that we suspend gravity and take complete command of the space around our bodies and everything that comes within it. At this point we know we've gone beyond the distinction between us and not us, between movement and stasis, between real and unreal and between life and death. All who behold us fall under our spell and are mesmerised by the perfection. They are inexorably drawn into it. We leap and soar as if of a single mind and body and bend the laws of perception. Whoever sees us doubts what they see. Our twisting bodies get to twist gravity to our will. We can draw and repel both our own limbs and those of others who've come too close. We send hands, arms, legs, heads and torsos in all directions and still they come, drawn like moths to a flame of monstrous beauty. We enjoy ourselves as our art form sweeps us along on a wave as a pulsing, spinning, thrashing, thrusting, hacking blur, slicing off limbs, severing heads, piercing torsos and spilling guts, hypnotising the enemy before cutting them down. We dance our way across the battlefield with such grace and elegance that death becomes an exquisite gift and those left behind talk with pride of their father or husband or brother having died by the swords of Minamoto no Yoshinaka and Tomoe Gozen. So it is that by now, as we perform here in Awazu, we are legends all over Japan and the word 'immortal' is beginning to creep in where our names are spoken. And then it happens.
Void. He's not behind me. I know it. My back has suddenly become a huge hole and I’m being sucked into it with a force that’s pulling my eyeballs back into my head, turning the world around me upside down. Yoshinaka’s been cut down. Even dead he’s screaming with pain. I feel all of it, all of my lover’s pain, all over me, searing its way through me. Only now do I understand that he was part of every part of me, for every fingertip, every toe is aflame with his being wrenched out of them, tearing and ripping my flesh. I'm still fighting, but the battle has gone completely silent, as if I'd been hearing through his ears and he through mine. I cannot look, I cannot react and I cannot stop. I must accept he's dead and save myself. No blade has touched me, yet blood is draining from me as fast as in the nightmares after I lost our child. It feels like my head is no longer there. I swing my sword high and a severed head hits me full in the face, its blood blinding me. I manage to hold my footing. Was that my own head hitting me in the face? He’s been beheaded! The shock brings the battle bursting back in, this time more real than real. I take my lover's soul into me and, seeing through his eyes, we fight on, together, cutting our way to the nearest escape from an enemy that's just beginning to realise that it's done the impossible. Before they can hoist the flag that Yoshinaka has fallen, I must be gone. Two enemy commanders have seen him die and they are already after me. Just for who I am and what I am, they will rape me endlessly before they kill me. I run with all the power of my lover's legs. The bridge is over there—somewhere!
The role of this scene in the story
Tomoe Gozen's fighting in the Battle of Awazu is the signal that the introduction is over and we have arrived at the unstable equilibrium that is her life, a life of violent elegance. That we meet her long-time lover, Minamoto no Yoshinaka, for the first time in the scene in which he dies, signals both that her life without him will be very different to her life with him, but also that her life has always been without him.
The history behind the scene
The Battle of Awazu was not the final battle of the fateful Genpei War that spelt the end of the enlightened Heian Jidai (794-1185) and the beginning of the militaristic Shogunates (from 1185), but it did signal the closing of the final chapter of Japan's Golden Age. The Genpei War (1180-1185) that projected itself onto the canvas of history as a mighty epochal clash of civilisations, was on the ground no more that than two overlapping local conflicts, one a petty internecine clan squabble, the other a clash between rival clans for Imperial influence.
Tomoe Gozen was as much a part of this petty, blood-letting world as she was aloof from it. She had two kinds of enemies. One was called 'enemies' and the other was called 'friends'.
The knock, later than I’d expected, sends Ali and I to our hiding places close-by, instinctively back in training camp mode. Bakr’s slow steps through the house punctuate the security steps passing through my mind. The beam. The bolt. The key. The creak.
“As-salam-alaikum,” greets a young woman’s voice, strange accent.
“Wa-alaikum-salam,” replies Bakr flatly, studiously flatly. It must be a beautiful woman.
“My name is Sonia, sir. My master sent me,” continues the woman.
“Who is your master and why has he sent you?” interrogates Bakr in a tone not quite as interrogatory as when he interrogates me, and I thought I was the weak link in our chain. If I can read Bakr’s soul from his voice, then so can she and she wouldn’t even have to be a spy.
“Begging your pardon, sir,” says Sonia, “I come every Friday morning to clean the fountain, the latrine, the stable, the cooking area and the courtyard. I check there’s enough hay for your horses, oil for your lamps and water for all your needs. I also see whether any fruit needs picking, clothes need washing and—”
“Who is your master,” interrupts Bakr.
“My master is Master Richard, sir.” Steady voice plus every second Norman is called Richard and I would've remembered that name. Whatever she is, she's no slave.
“I will speak to my master about this'" says Bakr, “Come back in an hour.” As he shuts the door, I wonder why Bakr, who must've picked up the same clues, had taken so long to shut the door. If she's pretending to be a slave then she has to at least look and sound like a slave. White. That's why he took so long. That accent must be from the Christian lands bordering Al-Andalus. Bakr and his bloody wife-quest. It’ll be the death of us! As he steps back into the house proper, Ali and I emerge from hiding. My dreading the next question couldn’t stop it from being asked, except, it's more of an imperative than a question.
“Anything. Anything at all,” demands Bakr. I look at Ali, his face strained. “Did anything suspect happen lately that might account for this mysterious offer of a slave?” he asks under his breath, eyes jabbing wildly, almost exactly quoting our training manual. While the two men are more puzzled than worried, I’m more worried than puzzled, but they seem not to notice. Not telling them about the man on the wall yesterday could be turning into a deadly mistake. If I tell them now, then we might still be able to put ourselves beyond danger. But I’ve knowingly withheld critical information from my comrades. I’ve committed treason. As soon as they know this, they’d be bound by sworn declaration to keep me alive only for as long as it is necessary to establish what damage I’ve done to them, to the Nizari and to the Isma’ilis. A dead body would draw unwanted attention. They won’t make it off this island. They’d have to poison my soul so I become too disturbed to be of any use to anyone. It’s now a matter of losing my life or losing my sanity, depending on who catches me first: my enemies or my friends.
“Nothing…,” says Ali eventually, shaking his head slowly, “I didn’t notice anything strange yesterday”. They both turn to me.
“Munira?” they ask, gently but fully present.
“No,” I lie, “I’ve not seen or heard anything.” I struggle not to avert my gaze too soon.
“Are you sure?” presses Bakr, “I mean, right now you’re not exactly…,” gesturing towards my pelvis.
“That’s enough, Bakr,” interjects Ali.
“The rules are the rules, Ali.”
“I said that’s enough!” I’m both surprised and shocked at Ali’s ferocity. Bakr looks hard at Ali, then at me and finally at Ali again. His eyes dart rapidly between us. He mutters something in his own language that we don’t understand. “What are we going to do about that woman?” asks Ali.
“What are we going to do about this woman?” demands Bakr.
The role of this scene in the story
The comradeship that had sustained the fugitives for four years since they fled Persia and Syria in 1187 is finally unravelling under the strain of their secrets. Everything that has defined their collective identity comes to an end. A period of introspection begins as the story setting moves towards the Maghreb, a name associated with sunset.
The history behind the scene
Norman-ruled Sicily was a potential threat to the Almohads in Al-Andalus (despite their unreserved integration with the local Arab and Muslim culture), an embarrassing, but necessary bedfellow for the Pope in Rome, and the active enemy of the Basileus in Constantinople. Each had reason for seeking the demise of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, or at least clipping its wings. Just to keep matters simple, vast Crusader armardas, like that of our friend Richard the Lionheart, are making a habit of overwintering in Messina. The city, consequently, was awash with spies in the late twelfth century, much more so than ordinarily.
The three trained Nizari agents chose to hide in full view of their pursuers, reasoning that as long as whoever was spying on them didn't know who they were, such spies would settle for merely knowing that the strangers were not their enemies.
The baby’s muffled crying startles her awake. The light is almost gone and so is the sand! She leaps up, almost losing her balance with the extra weight against her chest and immediately tries to pick her way back along land that is by now almost sea. Overhead, somewhere between the sea on her left and the cliff on her right, is the sky. She knows it’s there not because she can see it, but because that’s where it’s supposed to be. Where she’d scurried down earlier is now cut off. Frantically, she runs back past the rock in hope of finding another way up, but in the fast-fading light and thickening mist she wouldn’t see it anyway. Sea-land-sky-grey-fear is all there is. One infinite, pulsing, swirling, terrifying presence. It is everywhere, even inside her. Inside her. And inside the baby. The baby.
It’s screaming propels her on. She turns back towards the rock and can just about make out the water, a grey moving faster than the grey of the rock, surrounding the base. Energy from nowhere catapults her forward and with no time to be alarmed, she sprints-leaps across the water at the unfeasibly steep surface. Her outstretched arms reach blindly over the top in the hope of finding a gripping something, anything. Her chest slams against the rock, winding her. Searing pain shoots through her fingers as she tries to cling on and take in air, her feet desperately prodding about in search of purchase. They find none. She hangs by her arms with her full weight against the rock. Quiet. The baby!
The shock jolts her arms and, with the strength of a kami, she hauls herself onto the rock, screaming with pain as a spear drives into her shoulder. Landing on her knees and elbows, she hits the top hard, in the same action turning around, sitting down and tugging at her clothes in blind panic. The last layer opens to reveal an eagerly sucking mouth searching for a meal that’s obviously very close by. The mother laughs and bursts into tears at the same time. She moves her left arm to cradle the baby and a blast of pain explodes in her shoulder. Biting her lip and pinching her stinging eyes, she tries to block out the pain and collect her thoughts again. Her baby’s stoic efforts give her courage. Spreading her feet further apart to get a better balance on their precarious perch. Using her still good arm, she both opens her clothes and guides the baby towards her breast.
The baby feeds. She rests. She thinks. Suddenly, as if possessed, she pull her clothes away and stares at her baby again, frantically inspecting it. It’s uninjured. Not a scratch. Her relief at finding her baby unscathed from having hit the rock is nagged by a vague, primeval sense that something isn't quite right. Forcing such thoughts from her mind, she restores her impatient baby to its feeding. The baby suckles. Water rises. Snow starts to fall.
To cover themselves she needs to move the baby. The baby comes away with its milk-rimmed mouth sucking eagerly on her finger. The mother thinks of her goldfish safe in a bowl far away in Kyoto and wonders whether it’s been fed as she’d ordered. She daren’t let go of the baby and has no choice but to bring her cape around with her injured arm. In reaction to the sudden burst of pain she slams the baby against her chest. It burps loudly, depositing a thick layer of curdled milk between her breasts. She laughs again, but it comes out all broken and jagged as she shivers and snivels at the same time. She wipes the baby’s mouth and cleans herself as best she can. The baby is settled, for now.
It’s only when the wind is at it’s fiercest and all around them snow is being whipped about like spirits in turmoil, that she realises the air immediately around their bodies is perfectly still. More than that, it’s now snowing quite heavily and a single snowflake has yet to touch them. Snow seems to be collecting a little above her head and steadily spreading to form a cap held in place by …nothing. The snowcap grows into a small dome, it’s edge growing ever outwards and downwards. At the same time, snow seems to be settling in an oval on the steep rock around her, stacking up to form a little wall. While the wall is creeping up and the dome down, wild, whipping snow clings to the very air around them in flakes, forming ever-larger clumps that are perfectly smooth on the inside. The clumps start joining up and merging into the wall and dome. Presently, mother and baby find themselves sealed inside an egg-shaped cocoon. Warm sleep invites her. She accepts.
The role of this scene in the story
This is the middle scene in the chapter dealing with Tomoe's birth. There are sentient forces at work throughout the chapter, some trying to kill her, others trying to keep her alive. However, these are all forces that give life to the same world, the Earth. Thus is foreshadowed the fateful Genpei War (see Extract #1), in which rival claimants to leadership of Tomoe's clan, the Minamoto, will come to be locked in deadly feud at the same time as the clan was at war with another clan, the Taira, over the very future of Japan.
The scene is set at the northernmost tip of Japan, today the Russian island of Sakhalin, to which Tomoe's mother, a noble concubine, had fled to escape the hunt for concubines who could be bearing future claimants to the thrown. It is not known who this particular noblewoman was or whether, indeed, she was pregnant. Whatever the case, the spirits saw fit to intervene for the sake of Japan.
The scene also declares Shinto to have full sway over Japan and will contrast with the Buddhist supremacy later.
The history behind the scene
The dying days of the Heian Period (794-1185) saw Japan's Imperial nobility descend into complex, multi-layered, internecine warfare. Emperors, both those in office and those retired but still wielding
power, invariably had different ideas to those of their many squabbling
sons by different concubines as to who was next in line to the throne. No
sooner had an heir been declare than that declaration was challenged,
often violently. This is against the backdrop of the bloody struggle between the Minamoto (Genji) clan and the Taira (Heike) clan for Imperial supremacy in the context of the declining influence of the Fujiwara regency family, from whose women most hitherto Emperors had been born. During the first civil war between the Minamoto and the Taira, the Högen Rebellion of July-August 1156, the Taira emerged the more dominant clan. Their position, however, was not secure and they set about fixing that through a spree of killing. The chaos created the perfect conditions for the samurai to detach themselves from the nobility and to emerge as a class in its own right.
Tomoe was born into this chaos to become Japan's most famous female samurai.
“Once upon a time three carrier pigeons landed on the roof of the Pigeon Post building in Constantinople, with its spectacular view of the huge dome of a great cathedral. The first pigeon came from Cordoba, the second arrived from Cairo and the third flew in from Baghdad. It was their first time in Constantinople. They’d barely introduced themselves when a pigeon from Constantinople landed beside them and said, ‘Welcome to Constantinople, the most beautiful city in the world. Why don’t you stay here with us, be our guests and see it for yourselves?’
The three visitors looked at one another. The pigeon from Cordoba was the first to speak, ‘I will never stay in Constantinople. We have the Great Mosque, so Cordoba is the most beautiful city in the world.’ Then the pigeon from Cairo said, ‘I will never stay in Constantinople. We’ve got the Pyramids, so Cairo is the most beautiful city in the world.’ ‘Oh, but you all forget,’ said the pigeon from Baghdad haughtily, ‘we have the Round City, which is why Baghdad is the most beautiful city in the world. I can never stay in Constantinople.’ The three visiting pigeons argued and argued over whose city was the most beautiful in the world and pretty soon they were fighting. They clawed at one another’s feathers. Before long, all three had no feathers left.
‘Now see what you’ve done!’ said the pigeon from Constantinople. ‘Now you can’t even fly back to your beautiful cities. Perhaps you’d better stay with us and see what you can see of our beautiful Constantinople while your feathers grow back.’ At that the three pigeons started blaming one another for starting the fight. They argued and argued and pretty soon they were fighting again. They jumped on one another’s wings and before long, all three had broken wings.
‘Now see what you’ve done!’ said the pigeon from Constantinople in despair. ‘Now you can’t fly home ever. You will have to stay with us and see what you can see of our beautiful Constantinople.’ At that the three pigeons accused one another of being too proud to learn from their earlier mistake. They argued and argued and pretty soon they were fighting again. They pecked and scratched at one another’s eyes. Before long, all three pigeons were blind.
‘Now see what you’ve done!’ said the pigeon from Constantinople, exasperated. ‘Now you’ll never see either your own beautiful cities or Constantinople. Oh, here comes the Postmaster’s wife. She always comes in the afternoon to catch pigeons for the Postmaster’s dinner. I’d better be going. Salam alaikum!’
And the pigeon from Constantinople told the story to his children, his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren.”
The role of this story in the story
There are many stories embedded within the main story. This one appears near the end of the book as a summary of the sorry state that the Muslim world found itself in. It is Munira's final verdict on the society that had spurned her.
The history behind this story
The Islamic Golden Age saw the Muslim world bring forth a large number of impressive innovations, such as an extensive postal system,
despite the disunity, the rivalry and a stubborn inability to cooperate, that so characterised its politics.
While the Muslims were meant to be one umma (community), led by one caliph, there were, from 929-1031CE, no less than three caliphs, ruling from Cordoba, Cairo and Baghdad, respectively. At the end of the day, even the greatness of its innovations couldn't save the umma from itself.
In the middle of all this sat the jewel of Christendom, Constantinople,
taunting the Arabs, who tried several times to take it, failing every
time. Christian Constantinople survived the caliphates by almost 200 years.