(illustration by Edmund Dulac)
Mubarak was a cook who loved to cook, but he was not careful. He mixed up the spoons, didn’t clean the bowls, put opposing dishes on the same plate, and he didn’t decorate his dishes with care so that they looked worthy of the table of the caliph. Other chefs put gold, beaten so thin you could see through it, or grapes cut into the shape of birds or a peacock made of lettuce or a chrysanthemum made from a tomato, but Mubarak never cared about such things. So the caliph was always getting angry with him and sending him away to the farthest province, then feeling remorseful, no one could make eggs as delicious as Mubarak, and sending guards to bring him back.
The master of the horse was used to being told to give Mubarak a horse to go away, then having to send guards on fast horses to bring him back several days later, so he learned to always put Mubarak on Shabreenbyan, a huge black horse that looked magnificent and strong, but actually was very lazy and slow, so that Mubarak could not go very far and tire out the guards who had to go get him. The deputy assistant vizar gave Mubarak a light green velvet cloak with a light blue wool lining to keep him warm and make him easy to spot.
People who work with caliphs need to be smart in ways beyond the normal level of smartness. The caliph’s official executioner always had a bad cold or a family emergency when he was given an order to chop off a head. Then, when the reprieve came, the prisoner was always still alive. Although the caliph made fun of his ‘always sick’ official executioner, he never dismissed him because sometimes the reprieve did not come. Even after the executioner had two colds and three family emergencies, if there was no reprieve, the executioner paid a servant three copper coins to deliver a small, blank piece of paper to him. He would unfold it and study it carefully, nodding his head. The doomed prisoner, in his cell a mere two paces away from the executioner who was sitting at his desk, drinking tea and reading the message would call out, “Is there news?”
“Yes,” the executioner would say. “There are signs the caliph will relent.” Then he would make a cup of tea with leaves from a special clay pot kept looked in the lowest drawer of his desk. With a happy heart, the prisoner would accept the cup of tea when the executioner offered it, “Let us drink to better times.” Then the prisoner would fall into a soft sleep, never wake-up and the cell would be empty until the next time the caliph lost his temper.
Firing and fetching Mubarak worked well for years, until the time the caliph sent Mubarak away once fine day in spring. It was the sort of day that was so beautiful that you knew something awful was going to happen. Another chef made a cake of the finest nutmeg, clove, ginger and spikenard and decorated on top with a paste of ground almonds dyed with blue so it looked like a lake with small marzipan water pipits and lotus blossoms, but the taste was like if you wrapped your bedroom slippers in pages from a very old math book. The caliph roared and in came Mubarak’s cake which looked like you had thrown all your old clothes on a plate in a heap, so the caliph roared more and off went Mubarak on Shabreenbyan wearing his green cloak.
But this fine spring day, one of those days in which you learn never to trust fine spring days, turned to clouds almost as soon as Mubarak had left the palace gates, then wind came, then more clouds. Mubarak didn’t care, he had been told to leave so many times before, both he and Shabreenbyan knew the road and knew there was a small rest house just ahead, but then the djinn of weather decided to create some havoc, as they like to do, and let down a thunderbolt that landed not ten paces from Shabreenbyan.
Shabreenbyan bolted, the rain poured down and soon Mubarak was totally lost. But he was dry in his green cloak and it was a warm rain, so after Shabreenbyan calmed himself down, Mubarak never pretended that he could control Shabreenbyan and let him go where he pleased, Shabreenbyan plodded on.
When it grew dark, Shabreenbyan stopped under a tree and began to eat grass. Mubarak ate food one of the chefs and prepared for him and wrapped himself up in his green cloak, looking for all the world like a clump of grass as it is was exactly the color of new spring grass. Which is why the guards, who were sent out as soon as the storm started and the caliph was filled with remorse, never saw Mubarak. And Shabreenbyan, when he heard the neighs of the guards’ horses, sat down on the far side of the tree and lay his head down. He knew what guards meant – riding in the hot sun with some man who was always trying to make him go faster. Old hay. Cramped in a box all night. Being brushed by small humans with quick hands who tugged at his mane and his tail. Boring talk from the other horses and gossip about who will carry which human. It was much better with Mubarak; he loved these days of escapes and they would be caught soon enough. He wanted another few nights of freedom.
But no one knew where they were, so there were many nights of freedom, until the night a thief, the wily Yusef, stole both the cloak and Shabreenbyan as Mubarak slept. Shabreenbyan neighed but Mubarak slept on as Yusef, so wily he had never been caught, had laid his own, tattered but still warm cloak over Mubarak and tied his donkey, the famous Masoud, to the tree so Mubarak, waking for a minute, saw a horse-form, heard chewing, felt he still had his cloak and went back to sleep.
Yusef tied a soft cloak around Shabreenbyan’s mouth so he would not neigh again. Then started off on the road. He was caught just after sunrise, six guards surrounded him and brought him, at gallop speed, to the palace. They all knew Shabreenbyan and although they didn’t know Mubarak by sight, they knew he was a middle-aged man in a light green cloak. Yusef assumed he was caught for thieving and made no protest.
When he was brought to the kitchen and told to make dinner, he was confused but a good thief never shows fear or perplexity. He asked for a chicken, refused six that were brought to him and reluctantly agreed on the seventh. Then he insisted that he make the fire himself in the courtyard, inspecting each piece of wood carefully, and he eschewed all spices except a little salt from the salt flats near Masera. When it was cooked to his satisfaction, he insisted on a plain clay plate for it to be sent to the caliph.
The kitchen staff from lowest pot washer to Mubarak’s assistant, the deputy assistant head cook, looked on in fear and horror, but did not say a word. If palace guards said this was Mubarak, not a one of them would dream of pointing out that this man was very much thinner, taller, with blacker hair and blue, not brown eyes. The caliph’s ‘throw them out of the city’ tendency was well known.
The chicken dish was sent to the caliph. The caliph sent for Mubarak, readying the cry for execution.
“What is this?” he thundered. (Caliphs don’t look at servants, so he didn’t notice the change in Mubarak.)
Yusef, who used the time declining chickens and inspecting pieces of wood to gather an understanding of what was going on, bowed low and garbled out a tale of longing to please his master but on the road, a conversion had happened, he had turned away from rich and complicated foods at the taste of a simple green herb that he had seen a young woman, who was actually quite old, gathering. This herb gave strength, caused him to lose weight, grow taller and sharpen his mind. And this herb combined with a simple cooked chicken had turned his eyes from brown to blue and his hair from greyish to black. He had promised the woman never to tell a soul, but, well, for the caliph, if he was ordered, because he could never refuse an order from the caliph, he could go back and dig up some of the plants to bring to the caliph’s garden for his special use.
The order was given and Yusef left, still in the green cloak, leading 6 guards on fast horses with himself on a beautiful brown mare, the color of a bowl of Tawa Attir halwa on Eid morning. After five days journey, he was finally in his own territory and he led the guards into a wadi he knew. Then he chewed some of the herb that all thieves know, it sends you to sleep quickly but you wake up exactly three hours later. When he woke, he lay still, checked the breathing of the guards, then like a snake, slid to where the horses were hobbled, tied their mouths so they could not raise the alarm and led them many paces away. Then back to camp to take a little from this bag, a little from that, a knife from this one, shoes from that one, then back to the horses and away into the night.
At first light, the guards woke up to hear Yusef the thief yelling – he was high above them on the edge of the cliff overlooking the wadi. They looked up at him, then where the horses should be, then again up at him.
“You can’t get to me,” he said calmly. “You will never find the passage up to here. It will take you days of walking back to the start of the wadi, then up to the headlands and I will be long gone. I will ride today and sell all the horses tonight in a distant town. Then I will disappear. If you go back to the palace, you will be killed or put on punishment duty for years. I suggest you walk ahead, follow the wadi. If you start now, rest for a while when the sun is high and then walk again, you will find a well before night. Then walk again the next day in the same manner and you will come to a small village where they will feed you and show you the roads. May you go with God.” Then he walked back from the edge of the cliff, and they could hear him ride away.
Palace guards are not necessarily known for their independent thinking, so as one, they agreed to follow his advice. They walked, rested, walked, found the well, then the village, then made their way to the nearest town and each found employment. In time, two married and settle for good but four decided to try to return.
They snuck into their hometown just before nightfall. Three went to their old homes and their faces covered by hoods saw their former wives with their new husbands and children and decided there was no reason to stay. At day break they were the first ones out of the city gate, back into the wide world.
But one’s wife had not remarried and he snuck into her small home, threw back his hood and waited for her joyous greeting.
“Oh you,” she said. “Hmmmm, back again are you? Well, let us be serious. You were not a good husband, in fact you were such a lousy husband that I didn’t want to put myself through any of that again and now with one word, I could have you killed. Which is a rather delightful prospect considering how you treated me.”
But the man sat down with such a resigned look that she took pity.
“No hitting, no yelling and as for the other, I will say you are my long lost brother.” He agreed and later took a wife. Since four wives are allowed, this did not violate any laws or customs and the first wife (now sister) had children to comfort her and they all lived in perfect peace, as did the thief Yusef who, grateful for his close escape, turned to a life of piety.
But Mubarak, the cook, was quite at sea without food and only a torn cloak with the winter coming on. Luckily he was with a donkey. A horse would have been the death of him and a camel would have tipped him off and left him to starve, but donkeys, they do what needs to be done. The donkey knew that hay was needed, so she ignored the chef’s attempts to control her and followed her nose to the nearest hovel. She grabbed a few mouthfuls of fodder as the chef went to the door to beg.
He quickly learned to say, “I have no food, but I can make your food more delicious if you agree to share.” Sometimes there was distrust, but most often, from curiosity and innate Arab hospitality, he would be invited in. The thief had left his two small bags with spices, never dreaming they were worth more than the horse, so he attended to the rude dishes with simple ingredients and often with a slight of hand managed to take with him some pinches of whatever spices the house had.
In this way he roamed the land for months, learning new recipes and assembling a fine collection of spices. He now had a warm cloak and good sturdy blanket for the donkey who he named al-Zahra. As he had a kindly welcome in most houses, he didn’t think of the future, but al-Zahra had a plan and was steadily making their way to Ashtaran, a place fabled among donkeys as a haven of good treatment.
It was high summer before they finally walked in through the high gates; al-Zahra gently discouraged the chef from riding her by administering a soft bite on his leg if he tried so he was now quite fit and healthy. Al-Zahra had always avoided cities before, so this was the first the chef had seen in many months. He was overjoyed, but also confused the cacophony of noise and smells after so long in the countryside. Al-Zahra consulted with a passing donkey and got directions to Khalid’s café, where there was always a kindhearted welcome to human and beast.
And Mubarak responded to that kindhearted welcome in the way of all chefs: he insulted the food. As he took a bite of the free piece of basbousa that came with every cup of tea, he muttered, “too much sugar” and when he took a bite of the free piece of date cake that came with every cup of tea, he muttered “too much flour.” And when offered a free piece of the famous sweet of Ashtaran made of honey, nuts and spices, he abused the sweets so roundly, the cook came out with a wooden staff to uphold his honor.
Mubarak did not flinch, “take that wooden staff and beat yourself, how dare you call yourself a cook with a basbousa like that?”
“And you can do better?” Khalid asked, intervening between the two men with Mubarak yelling that the cook should be not be allowed within a parasang of sugar and the cook yelling unfortunate things about Mubarak’s mother. So Mubarak was shut in the kitchen with the warning that he produce a better basbousa before the sunset prayer or he was going to marched out of the town by an army of aggrieved cooks with wooden staves.
It had been months since Mubarak had been in a proper kitchen and in his joy he outdid himself, producing a tray of basbousa of such repellent aspect the flies flew away but the taste, oh the taste.
The cook sat on the ground, cried and offered to quit; Khalid ate piece after piece, softly saying “so this is basbousa” over and over; the other patrons fought for a piece and it was only because the last piece was gone that they all managed to get to the mosque in time for the prayer.
When the prayer was done, Khalid stayed and prayed on, asking for help with what to do with this genius and he prayed so much that the djinn of the souq had to get involved. Of course a genius chef was a tribute to the souq, but where to put him? Which restaurant or should be go to palace? This was food to make angels sing; Mubarak needed to be carefully handled.
Khalid, of course, offered him a job, but after his travels, Mubarak did not want to return to a life of cooking for another person and as he was explaining this, Al-Zahra was having a long talk with Khalfan, the djinn of the animals. She wanted to settle down, but not into a life of endless hard work. Then the djinn of the buildings was consulted, and of course the djinn of wisdom who always had good ideas.
The djinn of buildings, usually cranky but softened by the smell of that superlative basbousa, reminded the djinn of the souq of a small, abandoned restaurant, near the street of fruits and vegetables. Now if the donkey could be sold to one of the fruit or vegetable sellers and Mubarak took over that place, a counter with a small bench, a tiny kitchen and a room for sleeping in the back, why everything might turn out well.
And it did.
But not in the way that was envisioned as Mubarak had learned to be happy experimenting every day with whatever was in the house he was in, always trying new combinations, so he was not going to waste his days making basbousa, grilled meat, rice wrapped in grape leaves or potatoes fried in oil with spices.
Once Al-Zahra was sold (with a promise that she would never be over-worked or hit), the restaurant swept out, his cloak laid on the plain wooden board that was his new bed, the bowls cleaned, the knifes sharpened, and all the food stores examined for the freshest merchandise, Mubarak made a salad.
And Khalid wanted to tear his hair out, “A SALAD?” then he tasted it and sat on the ground and cried as a mix of the most differing, yet compatible, tastes exploded in his mouth. This was not salad, but a triumphal victory of every maligned fruit, vegetable and spice in the souq. This was war on banality. This was everything your heart had long desired without your realizing what was missing. Of course, everyone scoffed, but not after the first bite. Never once after the first bite (except a few times, we shall not discuss the lemon, bean, musk and spikenard fiasco).
Within a few weeks, it was as if he had always been in the souq. Everyone knew the rules and for all the years to come, the rules never changed. Mubarak got up at dawn and walked through the souq, seeing what was new and fresh, taking this and that which was carried back to his restaurant by parandas. Then he would go home and create. He would do the mid-day prayer, eat and nap. When he came back from the mosque after praying the mid-afternoon prayer, he would open the store.
Each person (there was usually a line) would hand over a bowl and Mubarak would fill it, no matter the size of the bowl, with exactly one large scoop as the customer dropped coins onto the small metal tray. When the bowl was empty, the restaurant was shut and he would walk to the grand mosque and give a bowl to the sheikh to distribute. Then he would walk through the souq with the coins in his pocket and store owners would call out to him to pay what he had taken in the morning, with a paranda or two nearby to make sure Mubarak was not cheated. Then he went to Khalid’s café as he and the cook became friends after the cook apologized for what he had said about Mubarak’s mother. At sunset he would pray, have his dinner, pray again and go to bed.
Before sleep, he would think of what to try the next day – how to mix which lentils with which greens. Would rice, spinach and oranges work if he added anise and saffron? Leeks and carrots with peaches or apricots? Figs with eggplant, honey and orange-blossom water? Jasmine and cucumbers with cherries and nutmeg? There were a few missteps – never put artichokes with grapes and we will pull a veil over the beans and dates fiasco (not even cloves could save it). Few were willing to try the onions, celery and rose-water concoction, but it wasn’t that bad, saved by the cinnamon. The almond, radish, and quince salad was talked of for weeks.
Sometimes in Ramadan, Mubarak would relent and make a normal dish like dredging pieces of chicken in breadcrumbs with spices, frying the pieces in olive oil and serving them with preserved limes and sesame, but that rarely happened. More often it was qata’if (the small pancakes that were supposed to be filled with sweet cheese) with chard, endives, apples and mastic. Or pears with olives, cloves and wheatberries.
In the winter, he would not make salads, but sell his four combinations of spices in small wooden jars. Only one woodcarver was allowed to make the jars as Mubarak knew that only the prized mitain wood of the mountains would not alter the taste of his splendid creations. He would inspect the pieces himself and only take a jar with no flaws. The first eight jars were returned to woodcarver filled with spices as payment, and each of the woodcarver’s daughters had four jars in her dowry, worth more than gold. There was Mubarak’s unparalleled kamouneh, mixed spices with rose petals which had been handpicked by rose-owner’s wife before dawn on the third day after the summer solstice; hawajat, a collection of spices he had learned from a wandering Yemeni wiseman; the matchless zeypen, dried green herbs which made the plainest bowl of winter potage taste like a spring day and the divine khoshaf, finely cut dried fruit with violets and pistachios.
The wisdom of the rulers of Ashtaran (three ruled while Mubarak was alive, proving that eating fresh, well-spiced food leads to long life) was shown in that no one forced Mubarak to come to the palace, but servants were sent to stand in line along with the normal people (and when a servant returned with that unfortunate lemon, bean, musk and spikenard disaster, he was not punished).
And, here is the real proof of their wisdom, the leader of the caravanserai was given an order that if any caravan came in with unusual, expensive spices, the cook of the palace was to be sent for. And the cook was instructed to buy all, keeping half for the palace and half was sent to Mubarak who never had enough money as the fruit and vegetables sellers were always trying to cheat him by proclaiming that he had taken more produce than he had. One might think that fruit and vegetable sellers, being living so much in clean, fresh air and handling the bounty of the earth would be honest, but it is yet another disappointment of life to realize that they more often resemble grubs more than an honest ripe apricot, a discussion for another time.
Mubarak appreciated the generosity of the palace and reciprocated by sometimes sending up a sfoof, the beautiful yellow turmeric cake, decorated with marzipan flowers which ended up looking like a heap of street sweepings, not a bouquet, but the taste was celestial.
He never married and never moved from his small store, but as he got older, he would sometimes go to Khalid’s café and teach the chef’s daughters, and whoever could fit into the kitchen, some of simple recipes like the heavenly mazaher, dried oranges with honey and saffron; loomi, dried limes and citron peels boiled in dark sugar with amber; pickled cucumbers with almonds; figs stuffed with sweet cheese and camphor; and aloes boiled with nutmeg to take a fortifying syrup.
When he was older still, the master of the souq presented him with a glass spoon and blue silk sash and Mubarak became the food inspector for the souq, cleaning his spoon carefully on a clean piece of white linen before tasting samples and cleaning his teeth afterwards with a siwaq. A nod filled the chef’s heart with gladness and a shake of Mubarak’s head filled the chef’s heart with despair, but Mubarak did manage to refrain from saying what he really felt about an undercooked sliced eggplants swimming in olive oil with too much salt and not enough chard and the chefs did manage to refrain from discussing what they really felt about Mubarak’s mother.
He died on a spring evening, after a delicious dinner of fresh peaches with quinces and rose-water, thus does genius come unexpectedly into the life of the souq and gently leave it with the scent of roses.
(illustration by Edmund Dulac)