I am a tree and I am quite lonely. I weep in the rain. For the sake of Allah, listen to what I have to say. Drink down your coffee so your sleep abandons you and your eyes open wide. Stare at me as you would jinns and let me explain to you why I’m so alone.
- They allege that I’ve been hastily sketched onto nonsized, rough paper so the picture of a tree might hang behind the master storyteller. True enough. At this moment, there are no slender trees behind me, no seven-leaf steppe plants, no dark billowing rock formations which at times resemble Satan or a man and no coiling Chinese clouds. Just the ground, the sky, myself and the horizon. But my story is much more complicated.
- As a tree, I need not be a part of a book. As the picture of a tree, however, I’m disturbed that I’m not a page within some manuscript. Since I’m not representing something in a book, what comes to mind is that my picture will be nailed to a wall and the likes of pagans and infidels will prostrate themselves before me in worship. May the followers of Erzurumi Hoja not hear that I secretly take pride in his thought—but then I’m overcome with the utmost fear and embarrassment.
- The essential reason for my loneliness is that I don’t even know where I belong. I was supposed to be part of a story, but I fell from there like a leaf in autumn. Let me tell you about it:
Falling from My Story Like a Leaf Falls in Fall
Forty years ago, the Persian Shah Tahmasp, who was the archenemy of the Ottomans as well as the world’s greatest patron-king of the art of painting, began to grow senile and lost his enthusiasm for wine, music, poetry and painting; furthermore, he quit drinking coffee, and naturally, his brain stopped working. Full of the suspicious of a long-faced, dark-spirited old geezer, he transferred his capital from Tabriz, which was then Persian territory, to Kazvin so it would be farther from the Ottoman armies. One day when he had grown even older, he was possessed by a jinn, had a nervous fit, and begging God’s forgiveness, completely swore off wine, handsome young boys and painting, which is proof enough that after this great shah lost his taste for coffee, he also lost his mind.
This was why the divinely inspired bookbinders, calligraphers, gliders and miniaturists, who created the greatest masterpieces in the world over a twenty-year period in Tabriz, scattered like a covey of partridges to other cities. Shah Tahmasp’s nephew and son-in-law, Sultan Ibrahim Mirza, invited the most gifted among them to Mashhad, where he served as provincial governor, and settled them in his miniaturists’ workshop to copy out a marvelous illuminated and illustrated manuscript of all seven fables of Tamerlane. Shah Tahmsap, who both admired and envied his intelligent and handsome nephew, and regretted having given his daughter to him, was consumed by jealousy when he heard about this magnificent book and angrily ousted his nephew from the post of Governour of Mashhad, banishing him to the city of Kain, before sending him off to the smaller town of Sebzivar in a renewed fit of anger. The calligraphers and illuminators of Mashhad thereupon dispersed to other cities and regions, to the book-arts workshops of other sultans and princes.
Miraculously, however, Sultan Ibrahim Mirza’s marvelous volume did not remain unfinished, for in his service he had a devoted librarian. This man would travel on horseback all the way to Shiraz where the best master gilders lived; then he’d take a couple pages to Isfahan seeking the most elegant calligraphers of Nestalik script; afterward he’d cross great mountains till he’d made it all the way to Bukhara where he’d arrange the picture’s composition and have the figures drawn by the great master painter who worked under the Uzbek Khan; next he’d go down to Heart to commission one of its half-blind old masters to paint from memory the sinuous curves of plants and leaves; visiting another calligrapher in Heart, he’d direct him to inscribe, in gold Rika script, the sign above a door within the picture; finally, he’d be off again to the south, to Kain, where displaying the half-page he had finished during his six months of traveling, he’d receive the praises of Sultan Ibrahim Mirza.
At this pace, it was clear that the book would never be completed, so mounted Tatar couriers were hired. In addition to the manuscript leaf, which was to receive artwork and scripted text, each horseman was given a letter describing the desired work in question to the artist. Thus, messengers carrying manuscript pages passed over the roads of Persia, Khorasan, the Uzbek territory and Transoxania. The creation of the book sped up with the fleet messengers. At times, on a snowy night, page 59 and 162, for example, would cross paths in a caravansary wherein the howlings of wolves could be heard, and as they struck up in friendly conversation, they’d discover that they were working on the same book project and would try to determine between themselves where and in which fable the prospective pages, retrieved from their rooms for this purpose, actually belonged.
I was meant to be among the pages of this illustrated manuscript that I sadly heard was completed today. Unfortunately, on a cold winter’s day, the Tatar courier who was carrying me as he crossed a rocky mountain pass was ambushed by thieves. First they beat the poor Tatar, then they robbed him and raped him in a manner befitting thieves before mercilessly killing him. As a result, I know nothing about the page I’ve fallen from. My request is that you look at me and ask: “Were you perhaps meant to provide shade for Mejnun designed as a shepherd as he visited Leyla in her tent?” or “Were you meant to fade into the night, representing the darkness in the soul of a wretched and hopeless man?” How I would’ve wanted to complement the happiness of two lovers who fled from the whole world, traversing oceans to find solace on an island rich with birds and fruit! I would’ve wanted to shade Alexander during the final moments of his life on his campaign to conquer Hindustan as he died from a persistent nosebleed brought on by sunstroke. Or was I meant to symbolize the strength and wisdom of a father offering advice on love and life to his son? Ah, to which story was I meant to add meaning and grace?
Among the brigands who’d killed the messenger and taken me with them, dragging me headlong from mountain to mountain and city to city, there was a thief who occasionally understood my worth, and had the refinement to realize that looking at the drawing of a tree is more pleasant than looking at a tree; but because he didn’t know to which story I belonged, he quickly tired of me. After dragging me from city to city, this rogue didn’t tear me apart and dispose of me as I’d feared he might, but sold me to a cultivated man in a caravansary for a jug of wine. Sometimes at night this unfortunate delicate-spirited man would stare at me by candlelight and cry. In time, he died of grief and they sold his belongings. Thanks to the master storyteller who purchased me, I’ve come all the way to Istanbul. Now, I’m most happy, and honored to be here tonight among you, the Ottoman Sultan’s miraculously inspired, eagle-eyed, iron-willed, elegant-wristed, sensitive-spirited miniaturists and calligraphers—and for Heaven’s sake, I beg of you not to believe those who claim I’ve been hastily sketched onto coarse paper by some master miniaturist as a wall prop.
But hear yet what other lies, slander and brazen untruths are being spread! You might remember how last night my master nailed the picture of a dog here on the wall and recounted the adventures of this crass beast: and how at the same time he told of the adventures of this crass beast; and how at the same time he told of the adventures of Husret Hoja of Erzurum! Well now, the admirers of His Excellency Nusret Hoja have completely misunderstood this story: they think he was the target of our account. Could we have possibly said that the great preacher, His Esteemed Excellency, was of uncertain birth? God forbid! Would it have even crossed our minds? What mischief, what a crude lie! Clearly, Husret of Erzurum is being confused with Nusret of Erzurum, so let me proceed to tell you the story of Cross-Eyed Nedret Hoja of Sivas and the Tree.
Besides denouncing the wooing of pretty boys and the art of painting, this Cross-Eyed Nedret Hoja of Sivas maintained that coffee was the Devil’s work and that coffee drinkers would go to Hell. Hey, you from Sivas, have you forgotten how this enormous branch of mine was bent? Let me tell you about it, then, but swear you won’t tell anyone, and may Allah protect you from baseless slander. One morning, I awoke to find that a giant of a man—God protect him, he was as tall as a minaret with hands like a lion’s claws—had climbed up onto this branch of mine and hidden beneath my lush leaves together with the aforementioned Hoja and, excuse the expression, they were going at it like dogs in heat. While the giant, whom I later realized was the Devil, attended to his business with our hero, he was compassionately kissing his lovely ear and whispering into it, “Coffee is a sin, coffee is a vice . . .” Accordingly, those who believe in the harmful effects of coffee, believe not in the commandments of our good religion, but in the Devil himself. And finally, I shall make mention of Frank painters, so if there are degenerates among you who have pretensions to be like them, maybe you heed my warning and be deterred. Now, these Frank painters depict the faces of kings, priests, noblemen and even women in such a manner that after gazing upon the portrait, you’d be able to identify that person on the street. Their wives roam freely on the streets anyway—now, just imagine the rest. As if this weren’t enough, they’ve taken matters even further. I don’t mean in regard to pimping, but in regard to painting.
A great European master miniaturist and another great master artist are walking through a Frank meadow discussing virtuosity and art. As they stroll, a forest comes into view before them. The more expert of the two says to the other: “Painting in the new style demands such talent that if you depicted one of the trees in this forest, a man who looked upon that painting could come here, and if he so desired, correctly select that tree from among the others.”
I thank Allah that I, the humble tree before you, have not been drawn with such intent. And not because I fear that if I’d been thus depicted all the dogs in Istanbul would assume I was a real tree and piss on me: I don’t want to be a tree, I want to be its meaning.