“We travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the golden road to Samarkand.”
James Elroy Flecker, The Golden Journey to Samarkand (1913)
Through the snow-capped mountains down to the dales brimming with thistles, faltering along the craggy pathways, came the nomads: alchemists and wizards; silversmiths and blacksmiths; potters, silk traders and carpet-sellers; men in red turbans and white tunics; philosophers and poets with tattered books tucked up in their baggy pants; artists of dubious merit and translators of imaginary languages. All of them showed weather-beatenfaces and shriveling smiles.Huddled up together, bivouacking in makeshift tents, their hands stretched out beside the flickering bonfire in the windswept plains, or plodding along under the sun, no shade in sight, a name haunted their minds and rang in their ears relentlessly: Samarkand, Samarkand, Samarkand. After repeating the name a hundred times a day, the word did not sound like a name but like a worn-out coin with invisible mint marks.
They left behind the Zarafshan Mountains, some afoot, some others atop of camels and got down close to the river, looking over their shoulders, wincing back if someone unexpectedly tugged at their cloaks, or shuddering if a crow flushed past, cawing a jarring note. The silent footsteps of a snow leopard cannot be heard until the animal is too close, and then it is all too late. Tall tales about giant-sized felines devouring three men at a time and still looking for more to appease their ravenous hunger were part of their daily routine while traversing the mountain trails. The opening of late-night stories was always new and surprising but the denouement was inevitably the same: no one could survive the beast’s claws and fangs. Now, down in the warm valley, not far from the caravanserai, fear, like the thick coats they were still reluctantly wearing, refused to abandon their bodies.
An Azeri blacksmith carried a cage of metalwork, an exquisitely crafted piece from Tabriz, but the door remained unhinged and was perpetually half-open. “What’s the use of a cage if you cannot locked its door shut? The bird will fly away”, an old man from Bukhara chimed in. But the cage-seller obstinately believed in cages with open doors. “The bird will be free to stay or leave. No one can cage a soul, and birds are winged souls after all.” The silk traders could not avoid guffawing at this point.
An eighty-year old, long-bearded potter had travelled miles from China to sell a giant-sized porcelain statue that had lost its head and arms some years back when the trunk fell off the camel and it rolled down the steep walls of a ravine. He travelled back and forth the route every year, without any luck, toting the heavy figure, wrapped up in wads of cotton. “Why does he bother to carry that load of junk? Has he lost his head as well?”, a voice whispered behind his back.
An Afghan carpet merchant coveted his goods so dearly that he did not just part with any of them in any of the countless bazaars they passed through. “How much is this one?” inquired one customer. “That is so old and worn out that the central medallion is threadbare. Not good for sale, sir. I have to take it away right now,” replied the carpet vendor pretending he was busy moving things around. “What about that red one in the corner? Is that a Balouchi carpet?,” asked a woman that looked like a decided buyer. “No, Ma’am. No, unfortunately, no Balouchi carpets here.” “But that really looks like an authentic one”, she insisted. “My distinguished customer, kilims can do wonders to beguile the most demanding customer’s eye.” concluded the man, his hand resting on his chin. “This here is not worth the hassle, trust me”.
There were Persian poets who wrote each of their lines on separate tiny pieces of papyrus. They carefully rolled them up, tied them tight with a hemp string and kept them all safe and snug under their hats. “The lines and verses of a ghazal, like delicate eggs, are laid by the heart and hatched by the head”, someone observed. Sometimes, when the cold wind buffeted hard and they badly needed to readjust their scarves around their heads, or when the scorching heat forced them to take off their hats and wipe the sweat from their foreheads, they forgot all about their unfledged poetry. The tiny rolls flew away, to the sky, like kites released from their strings. Peasants found them days later stuck in the branches of a mulberry tree or floating in the muddy waters of the river; untied the knot and tried to decipher the mystifying, blurred lines as if they were they pieces of jigsaw puzzle jumbled by Allah for humankind to order again. One line read: “Thy eyes, like an icicle growing sharper every second/ Pierce my heart with the ruthlessness of a scimitar”. Another line put it: “I have dreamed of your body nigh mine, / The softest damask in the vizier’s palace would not have been a better blanket.” Sometimes a goat bleated happily after gulping down three scrolls in a row, and then it was accepted with resignation that that must have been God’s Will for they knew that His ways were much greater than a man’s mind.
Samarkand was only half a day away. They wouldn’t stop at Dagbit fair, no matter how busy and crowded it might get, for its people were only interested in purchasing handwoven golden-thread silks, bronze-framed mirrors, Chinese Song-dynasty coins, turquoise stone-bedecked bracelets, ceramics without any glaze flaw and everything that could be bought low and sold high. Samarkand, and no other place on earth, was the destination. In no time their goods and trinkets would be put on display. Some merchants would unroll the mats and unload their heavy trunks; the smoke of the burning sandalwood would start to coil around the teapots steaming on the trivet braziers over the ever-glowing embers. Soon enough the open-door cage, the not-for-sale carpets, the headless and armless statue and the papyrus rolls would be saluting the early risers.
Mauricio D. Aguilera Linde
October 26, 2019.