In this episode, five sketches of life in a Georgian han.
The Eternal Jew’s Tale
Fourteenth Era, Part 20, ~1190 C.E., Mtskheta
Mtskheta called us back — Tamar and her urgent enterprises. So we left these shave-headed Mountain Jews with light loads, now that our packs — gold and gems, wool and dyes — had been delivered, paid for, and distributed.
They found a use for us bookmaker types here where the spirit of Bezalel* is nurtured and prized in home and school, where tradesmen compete in beauty and art.
* lead artisan of the Tent of Meeting, Sh’mot/Exodus 31:1-6 and beyond
We set up a shop on the second floor of a caravanserai on the edge of town, its hustle and haggle exposin’ our wares, while the animal fragrance keeps the rent low. And the followin’ curiosities I seen from my perch on the balcony when I been foggy eyed and laid down my quill, or when my belly grumbled too loud. I calls this section in my taleful way: Sketches Set in a Georgian Han.*
* Turkish name for a caravanserai
Sketches Set in a Georgian Han
I was scribin’ a mezuzah in a tiny script, writin’ *v’kharah af* when a thunder explodes — like them earthquakes that flattened old Aleppo about a decade ago, as I recall. I fall off my chair, then scramble to the rail of the balcony as I shout to Batkol,
“Get outa here. It’s all comin’ down.”
*-* Hebrew: ‘then flares the wrath’ a phrase in the 2nd paragraph of text in a mezuzah
There on the opposite side of the han it seems the whole side of the place collapsed. Just a pile of rubble, best as I can see thru the air thick with dust and debris. Swirl and choke and frantic screams, donkeys brayin’ and yelpin’ dogs, people runnin’ this way and that, and I’m searchin’ the walls, pillar and beam to see what else is gonna come down. Not long til a crowd outside forms. Panic and shoutin’ and questions fly. Earthquake or war? Is it just this han? Next thing I remember, I’m down in the court, a dozen of us pawin’ in the bricks to dig out the buried and any alive. That night, exhausted and caked in dust I drag myself home. There’s four men dead — a Mongol guide and his traders from China, and a local boy who worked as a groom. Plus some men with broken heads or bones. Lucky no children were playin’ down there. Next mornin, before I climb them stairs to my shop, I do a thorough search to see if my side is next to come down. And I ain’t alone assayin’ the place. Nervous as a fox I climb the stair. There’s my stool upside down, my duck quill broken, ink overturned, a kittel* of dust on everything, and everyone coughin’ as they dig out.
* burial shroud
At the gate of the han, stompin’ and screams; two wild men, hair matted in knots, beards that swallowed the whole of their face and it made their heads look ghastly large, like them demons the Tibetans paint on their scrolls. Their robes were a patchwork of scraps and holes stained and filthy and as foul as their mouths, them screamin’ for blood of some rascal thieves. With an elbow my neighbor gives me a poke:
“De-frocked Nestorian monks, I hear, beggin’ and pilferin’ and skulkin’ about. It seems some lad got the better of them.”
Curious and amused I finish the verse of *Pesukei Dezimra* I’m scribin’ for the rav,
**”Supru v’goyyim et kavodo.”**
Then I wipe my quill and mosey on down to piece out the story from their monkey mouths.
*-* ‘Verses of Song’; songs to begin mornin’ prayers
**-** ‘Declare His glory to the nations’
When I get there, one is pawin’ his purse lookin’ for something, with growl and curse.
“Here! You see this piece of shist? Genuine lapis that bugger swore, highest quality, finest kind, straight from Khorasan’s finest mine and carved by an artist in holy Mashhad. And more he’s got, that bastard says, him takin’ pity on us wanderin’ monks.”
He sticks out his grubby and scabby hand to show us a medallion, crude and dull, like the throw-away matrix you can find in a heap outside a shop for cuttin’ gems. Gray and black veins, splotches of white; some blue patches, them second rate. There’s chuckles and grunts and ‘you been stung.’
“But yesterday this here was blue as the sky, til we took it to sell at ‘Gems of the Shah.’ That bitchbag dropped it in a boilin’ pot; when he pulled it out, he hands us this dungball, useless as tits on a bull. Help us find that pisspot runt that sold us this. We’ll cut off his nose.”
Then up rides a soldier, sword in hand, and me and the guys drift back to the han.
Here abouts they make amulets like I never seen, not anywheres else, with a blue thread woven around the text, ‘Fringes of the Lor’, ‘tzitzit ha-Adonai’ is how they’re known, and their power is great. Scribin’ one, I come to the words, ‘*ukharay anaekhem*, when the amorous strains of an oud* comes driftin’ in and lifts my hand. I turn to see whose touch is so fine to seduce from sinew such undulant notes. And there, as begilin’ as her throbbin’ song, a woman musician. Wonders abound. And behind her a pack of scruffy mutts enters the gate of our toilsome han, whoopin’ it up with yippin’ and yelpin’. Like Circe, all of these laborsome louts have been turned into swine, all snortin’ and snout.
*-* warning not to turn aside ‘after your eyes’; * guitar-like instrument;
O, her cheeks are flushed; like cherries her lips; kohl darkened eyes and swivelly hips; and the chords of her song like sensuous hands that slide down your back and into your pants. Then someone reaches to touch her cheek and another her behind. She pulls away, her shawl a flutter, and someone grabs and tears it away, like a maddened cur. And now her blouse is yanked; it rips, and her skirts are torn as the crowd crushes in.
Then a shout rises up, horror and foul, and sudden the crush backs off and away, and there she stands, naked, appalled. And she’s a man as all the world can see. And there beside her (but she’s a him) two men, knives drawn, furious their howls. Right then I am sure they will cut her throat, but no, a third man joins the two and covers her nakedness in a robe. A shout,
“Make way or we’ll cut you down”
and they grab her oud and she’s spirited away.
There’s cluckin’ of tongues at these deviant types and shoutin’ and grumbles,
“You bastard dog; should have cut off your eggs.”
But as for me it’s shock and shame at these, my friends. Say, what is normal and what is depraved? Violence and hate, or a man in skirts?
We all turn away, go back to our work. My quill on the table is caked with dry ink, and there, my amulet where I left off at ukharay anaekhem, warning us. I scrape off the ink, and pumice it clean to remove the hatred this moment bore. If you want an amulet to heal, the thoughts inside it must be kind.
Spit and strut. Spit and strut. Surly and burly, them comin’ on. Spittin’ and pissin’, fart and belch; handlers whistle, then a hook to the neck. Down they kneel, bellow and groan. The camel’s tale of Kohelet’s* first words.
* aka Ecclesiastes
What a strange and ugly and misshapen mass of feathers leapin’ in colorful disarray. Writhin’ his neck, snaky and long, that ends in a mean-lookin’ chicken’s head. Saplings for legs, spiky and stiff, and claws on their feet like tigers’ teeth. They calls this glommer an orstrich bird and his swing and sway and step-by-step mirrors the phrases of psalm twenty nine.
In the next episode, more sketches of Saadia’s and Batkol’s workplace.