NEAR THE GARHOUD BRIDGE, the red canopies of the ships billow in the wind like paper kites. It is only infrequently, in the morning, that the motors of the Liwa can be heard as it glides along the channel, because at night the sound of Arabian music envelops all: the floating salons, the decks of every dhow, the pleasure craft, and the fantastical sails of the giant cruise ships.
The waters are of cobalt and liquid gold, and the people on the boats all seem to be in love. The same as in any earthly paradise, it is an optical illusion: Saiyed does not allow himself to be fooled by appearances. Every Friday he hides away here, arriving at noon and staying until dawn the next day. It is the only night when the Governor is away, without giving any explanation, and so Friday becomes the night of his unconfessed delights.
The sky is always starry, as is only appropriate after the weekly day of prayers. But the liquid luxury of Al Boom does not belong to the Mohammedans, as one might think, but to tourists from all over the world, who are yearning for a little fun.
By rights, the place ought to smell of pearls (from the Iranian divers who came here first) and not of fish.
In the dream being dreamt by Mo, who is asleep and moving barefoot from one vessel to another, Al Boom is the larder of the empire: baclava and caviar, grilled octopus, spices that caress the tongue like a flying carpet caresses the hallowed soles of a maharajah. In his sleep, Mo samples delicacies and spits out pips. This is why his realm always sprouts back, with augmented pride.
Mo smacks his lips, licks his fingers and, finally, when his stomach is fit to burst, rubs his hands. Sated and content, Mo is the master to salve a wound: he fills the pockets of the believers with copper coins, and in his sleep he sends to the unmarried maidens and children painted silk kites.
Mo is a thunderclap and he is gentleness. This is why, when he sleeps, like a tomcat curled up in a basket, Dubai presses its forefinger to its lips and says, ‘Sshh, he’s resting!’
Saiyed is walking on tiptoes through the hot night and keeps the secret. For him, the illumined decks of the Kashti and the yellow sails of the Mumtaz have a completely different name. For him, the helium balloons and ladies’ corsets, translucent in the rays of the Moon, are Europe.
Wandering the lanes of the tourist village, Saiyed discovered an old man who restores violins and antique furniture.
At night, in the twinkling light from the ships, the old man’s workshop, which becomes a tea and spice shop, is even more alluring and fragranced, and the scent of coriander and sweet mustard wafts from the shore.
In the grogginess of Saturday morning, Saiyed begs his father to allow him to go to Paris or Bruges, to learn the polisher’s craft.
In his eyes, the cabinetmaker is a calligrapher of women and inconsolable loves. For, women move their wealth into the house of the husband, carrying the pillows and divans as if they were eggs.
Saiyed does not sleep or eat, as he gazes at the stars and at the sparkling garnets which might end up in the cedar intarsias of commodes and sideboards for glassware.
When old man Sadet restored a pendulum clock, the youth handed him one by one the wooden nails, the mother-of-pearl slivers, like goose down, and the malachite, which, against the mahogany, gleamed divinely.
‘Come tomorrow and we shall set pearls in an olivewood lampshade and gold studs on some walnut handles. You will like it. Tomorrow I shall show you a pasha’s throne, with horn armrests, which know not death, and a back made from palm fibres, in which the emeralds are caught like fishes in a net. Would you like that?’
Saiyed cannot say no. He merely nods his chin: of course he will come, early in the morning, with katayif cakes and pine tea freshly brewed by the kitchen woman.
His adoptive father does not find him between the sheets, but he is not alarmed: when has he ever cared about anything else? Not long before, Berthe told him what has been happening.
Saiyed is almost nineteen. What does he care? He has a mind younger than a child’s and he dreams of going away. The master craftsman asks him to trace an owl on a mirror frame. The apprentice is fiddling among the metals, his hands fluttering, like a bird when it forgets its nest.
‘What is this, Master?’
‘Zamak, an alloy of zinc, aluminium, magnesium and copper, for the braids of the generals.’
‘Iridium. It is for dentists.’
‘What about these two, the smooth ones?’
‘They are just aluminium and alpaca. Be careful not to mix them up!’
‘Is it true that the metal that shines too brightly robs you of your wits?’
‘Only gold does that. But look how many stages there are before gold!
‘Lately, jewellers have taken to dipping gold in rhodium, so that it will not dazzle your eyes. What a pity! It is as if you were to lave light in mud. For what? A metal saddened and whitened as water.’
‘What is that you are saying,’ asked the cabinetmaker. ‘So, you do not like white gold. But you are right, you know. Silver is sacred and unique. To imitate it is to rust the Moon and to grow sick of the measles.’
‘Master, I should like to tell you the thoughts that I dare not tell to any other, but I am afraid you will laugh at me.’
‘Fear not! Tell me!’
‘The Sun of gold is the only thing at which I can look without blinking. With all other things, I must squint. What do you think?’
One day, old man Sadet stretched a hempen net between two beech-wood frames and began to attach precious stones to it: he placed emerald and brown quartz between pieces of sodalite and gold wires to support them. He placed buds of white sapphire and rounds of carnelian in scooped-out rutile, also known as Venus’s hair. He suspended ametrine and labradorite from snares of jasper and galena, and then he called after a dallying apprentice:
‘Have you brought the hunters’ crystals?’
They were danburite and chrysocolla, eye of tiger and eye of cat, chalcedony and nebula stone.
‘Night was falling and still you did not come,’ joked the cabinetmaker.
‘Where are the fluorine crystals and the knobs of onyx? Another opal is needed, besides. Look for them over there! Put more heart into it. Give me an opal, if not, then a tektite will do, but it has to be green, so that it will sparkle in the lamplight.’
The apprentice circled around him, like a stork hunting frogs. Where is the tektite? He gave him an opal with dendrites of flame, like the core of a watermelon, and two small hyalites, gleaming like the devil’s buttons.
‘What am I supposed to do with these, you slow-wit?’
At that moment, the soles of Saiyed’s slippers could be heard scraping on the mat in front of the door.
‘Why do you wipe your feet so much?’ called out the Master. ‘Or do you not think that in the weariness of the legs resides the secret?’
Saiyed entered, shamefaced, and showed him his drawings.
‘I have drawn some leaves. I hope you will like them.’
He had asked for a laurel wreath and ears of wheat for the doors of a chest, but Saiyed had drawn peonies around the hinges and indented bramble leaves around the handle.
‘I do not know what I shall do with you,’ sighed the craftsman. ‘So be it. I have to understand that you cannot imagine the victors’ crown until you have won a battle.’
He twisted around and hit the stones in the net with his elbow.
‘What is that, Master?’ said Saiyed in wonderment.
‘Oh, it is a net of dreams. An order from the head of the Nakheel, a very rich man, to whom the sheik apparently comes in his sleep.’
‘It’s from the satellite dishes on the blocks,’ opined the other apprentice.
‘That’s a good one! The dervish from the fish market taught him this saying from the Indians, and he knows what it means.’
‘The dervish is dying,’ said the boy with the opals.
‘How did you know that?’ asked the cabinetmaker.
Such things become known. This morning, at the market, the people were haggling as usual for dorade and fresh turbot.
The apprentice had lingered too long. He no longer deigns to speak. Besides, the opals in his fist are making his eyes stream, like women’s eyes when they are peeling onions.
He moistens the pencil in his mouth and writes: from dove fat to men’s souls, everything can be found in Dubai.
Sheik Mo does not like to write, but he craves the glory of those who imagine books and live the lives of others, invented lives.
It is a vice that cannot be measured in money, because it is priceless. He is jealous at not being able to write a tale of tales that might turn the words to ice, and this is why he will fill the nights of all people with inscriptions and laws.
Instead of novels, Mo raises the cupola of his City as high as the soles of Allah’s feet. Mo is the lightning conductor of fear. He does not suffer nightmares and the footsteps of the wind fill him with rejoicing.
The wind licks the flames, ruffles the waters. The wind carries seeds. When it pleases, it lashes and slumbers, and it rips up all that seems ravaged by the fates. Somewhere, in the upper air, between the clouds and the palace, the wind falls silent. It is there that Mo’s kingdom begins and you can see his gems glittering. Mo has a diamond in his ear and another on his little finger. Mo wears anklets and bracelets on both arms. Mo imparts whispers when he passes, because the pearls, the sapphire clasp of his turban, and the jade tassels of his slippers clink.
Mo is the weeping of a nymph in the throat of Alizeu and he is the cold breeze from the ocean. Mo is the scorching breath that burns the palm leaves. Mo is brother to the wind whenever the fancy takes him.
Seated on a leopard skin, Mo is waiting for a scribe, with a computer, so that he can dictate to him a text: The Chronicles of Dubai, day one thousand and one: all the subjects are sleeping a dreamless sleep. In their sleep they glide along a streak of milk, while the City leavens like bread. Here is the Promised Land. I have invented it for them and I shall continue to build it, for I am the source, more than ever before, and forever more.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth