If Beit Zujaaj hill is not much of a hill, at least the hermit’s hovel can be called nothing but a hovel. Stones piled on stones until they have taken the vague shape of a dwelling. Two sickly chickens scratching in the dirt. As soon as I have caught my breath a man comes walking out to meet me. Abdel Jameela.
He is shriveled with a long gray beard and a ragged kaffiyeh, and I can tell he will smell unpleasant even before he reaches me. How does he already know I’m here? I don’t have much time to wonder, as the old man moves quickly despite clearly gouty legs.
“You are the physicker, yes? From the Caliph’s court?”
No ‘peace be upon you,’ no ‘how is your health,’ no ‘pleased to meet you.’ Life on a hilltop apparently wears away one’s manners. As if reading my thoughts, the old man bows his head in supplication.
“Ah. Forgive my abruptness, O learned Professor. I am Abdel Jameela. Thank you. Thank you a thousand times for coming.” I am right about his stink, and I thank God he does not try to embrace me. With no further ceremony I am led into the hovel.
There are a few stained and tattered carpets layered on the packed-dirt floor. A straw mat, an old cushion and a battered tea tray are the only furnishings. Except for the screen. Directly opposite the door is a tall, incongruously fine cedar-and-pearl latticed folding screen, behind which I can make out only a vague shape. It is a more expensive piece of furniture than any of the villagers could afford, I’m sure. And behind it, no doubt, sits Abdel Jameela’s wife.
The old man makes tea hurriedly, clattering the cups but saying nothing the whole while. The scent of the seeping mint leaves drifts up, covering his sour smell. Abdel Jameela sets my tea before me, places a cup beside the screen, and sits down. A hand reaches out from behind the screen to take the tea. It is brown and graceful. Beautiful, if I am to speak truly. I realize I am staring and tear my gaze away.
The old man doesn’t seem to notice. “I don’t spend my time among men, Professor. I can’t talk like a courtier. All I can say is that we need your help.”
“Yousef the porter has told me that your wife is ill, O Uncle. Something to do with her legs, yes? I will do whatever I can to cure her, Almighty God willing.”
For some reason, Abdel Jameela grimaces at this. Then he rubs his hands together and gives me an even more pained expression. “O Professor, I must show you a sight that will shock you. My wife . . . Well, words are not the way.”
, may just be the most anticipated debut fantasy novel of 2012. It’s received starred reviews from both Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. For those not in publishing, that is a very good thing indeed. The book comes out on Tuesday, but you can get a preview of Ahmed’s writing through the first chapter of the book and with his online short stories.