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THE COMMANDER OF THE FAITHFUL

THE COMMANDER OF THE FAITHFUL

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Written by Hunter   
Sunday, 26 October 2008 16:57



These events are succeeded by a few moments of silent waiting. Then
suddenly the long lines of soldiers vibrate under a thrill of religious
awe; the band, with its great basses and its drums, strikes up a
deafening, mournful air. The fifty little black slaves run, run as if
their lives were at stake, deploying [Footnote: Deploying: unfolding,
opening out.] from their base like the sticks of a fan, resembling bees
swarming, or a flock of birds. And yonder, in the shadowy light of the
ogive, [Footnote: Ogive: the arch which crosses a Gothic vault
diagonally.] upon which all eyes are turned, there appears a tall,
brown-faced mannikin, all veiled in white muslin, mounted on a splendid
white horse led in hand by four slaves; over his head is held an
umbrella of antique form, such an one as must have protected the Queen
of Sheba, [Footnote: Queen of Sheba: the queen who came to test the
wisdom of Solomon.] and two gigantic negroes, one in pink, the other in
blue, wave fly-flaps around the person of the sovereign.

While the strange mannikin, or mummy, almost shapeless, but majestic
notwithstanding in his robes of snowy white, is advancing towards us,
the music, as if exasperated to madness, wails louder and louder and in
a shriller key; it strikes up a slow and distressful religious air, the
time of which is accentuated by a frightful beating of the bass-drums.
The mannikin's horse rears wildly, restrained with difficulty by the
four black slaves, and this music, so mournful and so strange to us,
affects our nerves with an indescribable agonizing sensation.

Here, at last, drawn up close beside us, stands this last authentic
descendant of Mahomet, crossed with Nubian blood. His attire, of the
finest mousseline-de-laine, is of immaculate whiteness. His charger,
too, is entirely white, his great stirrups are of gold, and his saddle
and equipments are of a very pale green silk, lightly embroidered in a
still paler shade of green. The slaves who hold his horse, the one who
carries the great red umbrella, and the two--the pink and blue ones--who
shake napkins in the monarch's face to drive away imaginary flies, are
all herculean negroes whose countenances are wrinkled into fierce
smiles; they are all old men, and their gray or white beards contrast
with the blackness of their features. This ceremonial of a bygone age
harmonizes with the wailing music, and could not suit better the huge
walls around us, which rear their crumbling summits high in the air.

This man, who thus presents himself before us with the surroundings
which I have described, is the last faithful exponent of a religion, a
civilization that is about to die. He is the personification, in fact,
of ancient Islam. [Footnote: Islam: the religion of the Mohammedans.]
What result can we expect to obtain from an embassy to such a man, who,
together with his people, spends his life torpid and motionless among
ancient dreams of humanity that have almost disappeared from the surface
of the earth? There is not a single point on which we can understand
each other; the distance between us is nearly that which would separate
us from a caliph [Footnote: Caliph: the head of the Moslem state and
defender of the faith.] of Cordova [Footnote: Cordova: a city of Spain.
It is famous for its manufactures of leather and silverware. It contains
many Moorish antiquities, and is celebrated for its cathedral--once a
mosque.] or Bagdad [Footnote: Bagdad: a city of Mesopotamia on the
Tigris. It was formerly a city of great importance, and was a celebrated
centre of Arabic learning and civilization.] who should come to life
again after a slumber of a thousand years. What do we wish to obtain
from him, and why have we brought him forth from his impenetrable
palace?

His brown, parchment-like face in its setting of white muslin, has
regular and noble features; dull, expressionless eyes, the whites of
which appear beneath the balls that are half concealed by the drooping
lashes; his expression is that of exceeding melancholy, a supreme
lassitude, a supreme ennui. He has an appearance of benignity, and is
really kindhearted, according to what they say who know him. (If the
people of Fez [Footnote: Fez: a city in northern Morocco.] are to be
believed, he is even too much so--he does not chop off as many heads as
he ought to for the holy cause of Islam.) But this kindheartedness, no
doubt, is relative in degree, as was often the case with ourselves in
the middle ages; a mildness which is not over-sensitive in the face of
shedding blood when there is a necessity for it, nor in face of an array
of human heads set up in a row over the fine gateway at the entrance to
the palace. Assuredly he is not cruel; he could not be so with that
gentle, sad expression. He punishes with severity sometimes, as his
divine authority gives him the right to do, but it is said that he finds
a still keener pleasure in pardoning. He is a priest and a warrior, and
carries each of these characters perhaps to excess; feeling as deeply as
a prophet the responsibility of his heavenly mission, chaste in the
midst of his seraglio, [Footnote: Seraglio: a harem.] strict in his
attention to onerous [Footnote: Onerous: burdensome.] religious
observances, and hereditarily very much of a fanatic--he aims to form
himself upon Mahomet [Footnote: Mahomet (Mohammed): the founder of
Mohammedanism. Born about 570 in Mecca(?) and died in 632.] as perfectly
as may be: all this, moreover, is legible in his eyes, upon his fine
countenance, in the upright majesty of his bearing. He is a man whom we
can neither understand nor judge in the times we live in, but he is
surely a great man, a man of mark.

--PIERKE LOTI (adapted).

[Footnote: What things in the description would tell you that the scene
was Oriental? What observations does the author make on the difference
between East and West? As a spectator, what things would you find most
interesting in the scene? Do you know why the author calls the Sultan's
palace impenetrable? Why does the author think that his interview with
the Sultan may be useless?]
 
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