Sunday Stories: “Boundaries, Transgressions”


Boundaries, Transgressions
by Seth Rogoff

When I joined the online faculty meeting a few minutes late, thirty or forty of my colleagues were already logged in and listening to the dean making nervous, over-caffeinated small talk before he formally commenced what was sure to be a pointless, tedious hour. The online version of these meetings was, on the whole, even more monological and irritating than its pre-pandemic predecessor. On the other hand, it was now easy enough to cut one’s video feed and do other things, or simply to fade away into a blissful state of non-thought while the dean, or some other administrator, droned on about college policies or, worse, tried to pat us on the back for doing our “part” to “avert a crisis.” 

It wasn’t long before the meeting got going in its typical way, with the dean repeating, line by line, the agenda that his assistant had sent out the day before, a practice that always bothered me (just pick one or the other, for god’s sake!). By the time he was halfway through the reading of the agenda, I had already lost focus on what was going on and began to scroll through the boxes at the top of my screen that contained (housed? imprisoned?) the other muted “participants.” The usual suspects were in attendance—it’s a small college, after all, of no more than one thousand students. The two philosophers were there: Graham Fields and Jake West, the latter presenting a new mustache he’d apparently grown over the summer. Between Fields and West were the historian Phil Clegg and the art historian Sonoma Smith. My fellow literature faculty had also joined: Agnes McRoberts, Claire Lorraine, Erica Hughes, and Josh Levinson. And others: Wendy Driscoll from painting, Todd Bowman from theater arts, Cornelia Walters from biology, and so on. They were the same faces—give or take the yearly additions and subtractions—that I’d seen at these compulsory gatherings for the past ten years since I joined the college to teach creative writing. Yes, as of that particular faculty meeting, I had been at the college for a full decade, which made it all the more surprising that a couple of weeks before the meeting I had received a letter from the dean informing me that due to the “unforeseen and unforeseeable circumstances caused by the pandemic,” my position would be cut from full-time to half-time for the upcoming year. The fifty percent teaching load, of course, would come with a fifty percent reduction of my salary, putting me suddenly on the edge of poverty—or, actually, well over the edge, if I’m being honest with myself, which is tough, because then I’d have to confront the now undeniable fact that my teaching career hasn’t panned out, that it’s been a failure. I am not ready to do that yet. Perhaps this is why, despite the massive humiliation, I decided to attend the faculty meeting. I logged in and pretended that nothing had changed, that I still had a real job, part of the duties of which was to be there to absorb the latest barrage of new (or recycled) policies and protocols. Whatever the reason, however pathetic, after six months of isolation at least this meeting gave me something to do. 

As I was rather mindlessly scrolling through the images of my colleagues in their little boxes, I came across a box containing a person I hadn’t seen before and who wasn’t listed on agenda item number four (“new hires”). Her name was Zahra Aziz. I looked at her as she gazed ahead at her screen—at, I assume, the dean’s screen-shared presentation that now enveloped the space—and a strange feeling came over me. It wasn’t déjà vu, but something similarly uncanny. Over the summer, I had finished a new novel in which there was character named Fo, a stage name for a radical performance artist who had made her way from Tehran to Berlin, via Amsterdam, in the mid-1990s—in other words, at the same time I’d made my way to Berlin to walk those strange, desolate streets and to stumble into those hidden spaces. There was one such hidden space on Auguststrasse, where I’d seen an Iranian performance artist deliver a set of short, raw, stirring monologues. After each monologue of about five minutes, the performer would strip off her costume and dress in another, creating jarring but invigorating transitions. In my novel, the performance artist, Fo, was giving a series of one-person shows at an anarchist theater in Kreuzberg called Der Blaue Punkt. Fo was a kind of reincarnation of the Persian poet Forugh Farrokhzad, whose work I’d come across some years ago and had stuck with me—no surprise to anyone who has read her poetry. After I finished the novel, about a week before I received the dean’s letter of demotion and three weeks before the faculty meeting, I had found online a film about Forugh Farrokhzad. In this film, a kind of docufiction, the figure of the poet is played by an actor named Beatrix Newsome. It’s impossible to say precisely where Newsome’s roots lie, but she does evoke my imagination of Forugh Farrokhzad and, thus, also of my character Fo, who seemed to step out of my novel and onto the screen. And then, at the faculty meeting, this whole constellation of Forugh Farrokhzad, Fo, and Beatrix Newsome poured into that small box in front of me, a box labeled Zahra Aziz, not a character, not a fiction or an actress playing a role, not an author of a poem, but a person, a human being, just existing, just being herself. 

I slid my cursor over her face to the corner of the box, clicked on it, and selected “private chat.” The chat bar opened to the right of the meeting in a field of white, a blank page, a prelude to a beginning, I thought, the beginning of a novel, the beginning of a story, a life story, the empty beginning of a new life. I felt nervous, was even trembling, as I clicked on the whiteness and quickly wrote the following: 

Who are you? I see that the name on your box is Zahra Aziz, but this doesn’t clarify much. I don’t remember seeing you at the college before, but I also don’t remember reading your name on the dean’s list of “new hires.” Leaving you off the list would be most uncharacteristic for the dean, who, for all of his hideous flaws, primarily his authoritarian nature (maybe fascistic), is always thorough. He doesn’t make small mistakes, only big ones, mistakes so massive they can’t be seen, can barely be comprehended. But the small stuff, like making a thorough list of new hires at the college, that’s always perfect. It’s the combination of having not seen you before and your name not being on the list that prompts the question: who are you? I hope the question doesn’t offend you. I’m not trying to imply anything like that you don’t belong here. On the other hand, maybe implying that you do belong here is the bigger insult. If someone were to tell me I “belong” here, I’d spiral into a fit of despair, maybe I’d even quit this place, and I like to imagine I would quit, that I’d have the courage and confidence to quit, but the truth is I wouldn’t quit, the truth is if someone told me I belonged here I would know it was true. I do belong here. I am mired in this place, sinking in this quicksand of mediocrity, or, no, not mediocrity, but a place of constraint, stasis, limits, and fear—primarily fear, fear of the dean, fear of ourselves—of the dean within us. In other words, let’s forget about belonging or not belonging. The question remains: who are you? 

I stopped typing and was about to click send when I considered if I should read the text over again to make sure it was in order. Maybe it was the six months of isolation, maybe it was the demotion in status and pay, maybe it was simply the feeling of disempowerment caused by the presence of the dean’s authority, flanked as he always was by his courtiers: assistant deans, administrative assistants, faculty chairs, department directors, etc., but I suddenly felt that any hesitation in sending the note was a capitulation, a surrender to false consciousness, the result of a dehumanizing oppression that sought to govern my interactions with other purportedly free human beings like myself—a naïve, ridiculous description. 

I sent the note. The message appeared in the private chat window. 

I gazed at her image—the live feed from her home office, or living room, or bedroom, or elsewhere—a place both right there and unimaginable. There was a small bookshelf rising over her left shoulder. The corner of a print hung behind her against an orange-yellow wall, a color I’d never paint a wall, a warm but somehow menacing color. I watched to see if the expression on her face changed as she read my message. It didn’t change. Her lips, covered with burgundy lipstick, remained pressed together in studied seriousness. Her black hair, cut to the level of her chin, was perfectly in place. Her eyebrows curved into classical arches. I tried to refocus on the dean’s presentation. He was speaking about distancing protocols in the classroom, masks, about policies concerning excused absences, testing, but my thoughts kept slipping away from him and back to her—to Forugh, who became Fo, who materialized on screen as Beatrix Newsome, who appeared suddenly as Zahra Aziz. It was a collage of reality and fiction, a composition held together by desire—but desire for what? 

The shedding of selfhood, getting down to the core of being, which is at the same time fullness and nothingness: this was the mystic journey, the journey I was trying to trace in my novel. It led back to the medieval world and a book called The Conference of the Birds, and through this book, to a poet named Hafez, and through the Persian Hafez, to Forugh Farrokhzad, and it was through the tensions between these poets, Hafez and Forugh Farrokhzad, that I discovered Fo’s first performance piece, a piece called “A Persian Song, Revisited.” Revisited, revised, updated, rewritten, overwritten, written out, written through—words to describe the intertextual nature of existence, and with this intertextuality, the obliteration of boundaries, like the boundary that should be maintained between the actress Beatrix Newsome, playing the role of Forugh Farrokhzad, and Zahra Aziz, who appeared in front of me in the little box with the orange-yellow wall behind her.

I’d lost focus. I wasn’t paying attention to the screen, and when I looked back, I saw she had written:

I’m Zahra Aziz.

I read the line over to myself a dozen times. Then I spoke it aloud: “I’m Zahra Aziz.” Despite the repetition, there was no way of knowing how to take it, what the tone was, what she meant by it. I wondered at that moment if she was watching me in my little box as I read her response, just as I had been watching her reaction to my note. Could it be that she wasn’t paying any attention to the dean after all? Could it be that we were gazing at each other, unmediated by the dean’s screen-shared presentation? It was impossible to know, a digital hall of mirrors. I clicked back on the private chat window and wrote: 

One of the peculiar things about writing a novel is at some point aspects of the novel start to blend with aspects beyond it. A few years ago, I spent some time at the Mountain View Clinic. Maybe you know it. The head of the clinic, the director, told me—and this was after I’d published a novel about a translator who’d spent seventeen years working on a translation of a novel and had reached a point where he’d lost the ability to conclusively tell whether he was, in fact, the novel’s translator or if he was, rather, the novel’s author—in any case, the director, the doctor, told me I needed to erect walls between one zone (the author, the novel) and another (the translator, the translation). It is through such differentiation, he said, that we create order—and it is this order that provides us with stability. Only if we can occupy a stable point, he said, can we find our location—and it is through this process of “locating ourselves” that we can also understand ourselves. There was nothing I could do at the time but reject this reasoning. I had to reject the chain of ideas completely, and this rejection, this refusal to submit to the idea that differentiation-order-stability-location-understanding existed in such a relationship, frustrated the doctor to no end. He must have felt great relief when he finally threw me out of the clinic (ostensibly for failure to pay my bill). It was freedom from my stubbornness. Freedom from my insistence that literature was only possible in boundless spaces, in gaps between definitions, on disordered, unstable terrain, terrain under the constant strain of achieving order and losing it. Ground that held no roots, I think I said to him. A place which had no location, a subject that had no selfhood. On the other hand, this kind of boundless life wears a person down. In contrast, a place like this, this college, I mean, with its ever-increasing (proliferating) rules, with the tyranny steadily building, with its order and categories and hierarchies firmly set, starts to feel increasingly natural, necessary, comfortable, the way it should be. It pushes us into its framework, it preys on our weakness, vulnerability, our desire to give into something greater. And just as it seems like this life will last forever, that not only is there no escape but that we’ve totally forgotten about the very idea of escaping, have lost, in other words, all desire to leave, something happens and instantly the whole construct is blown apart. A character migrates across a boundary and inhabits a small box in an online faculty meeting: a character becomes “real.” This leads to a seemingly simple, but jarring, question. Did the inhabitant of the box exist before the character, making the character a derivative of her, or did the inhabitant of the box emerge from the character in a Golem-like transmogrification of inanimate matter—words, ideas, graphite on paper—into real life. Living. Breathing. Existing.

Click—the message appeared in the chat window. In the meantime, the dean had closed his presentation and was back on camera introducing an assistant dean, who was to talk, the dean said, about an array of new policies. He was the assistant dean for something or another, I always forget exactly what he did, despite the personnel flowcharts that were distributed to us two or three times a year and reflected, I guess, shifts in the organizational flow of power at the college. I never paid attention and didn’t much care, until every now and then something would break into my relatively insignificant realm. Perhaps I should have cared a little more, considering the demotion, not that my “caring” would have changed anything. The assistant dean began his talk. His puffy, unshaven, blemished face (was he a drinker?) dominated the screen, making Zahra Aziz seem even smaller than before. Still, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. A new message appeared. 

I hate to disappoint you, but I’m afraid I’m just a normal person and not a character in any novel or other literary work (at least that I know of). And I don’t think I’ve transformed lately in any fundamental way. Sorry! 

My pulse quickened as I read her words. I responded: 

A “normal person”—but what could that possible be?

She wrote: 

Don’t take this the wrong way—or do—but I get the sense you’re projecting something onto me that doesn’t belong. You see a face on the screen in front of you, but who are you really seeing? You’re seeing the person you want to see, meaning, I guess, you’re seeing an aspect of yourself, your reflection. It’s not another human being, and it is certainly not me. In actuality, I am not your reflection. I’m a person attending an online faculty meeting and trying to get the information I need to do my job. 

The note surprised me. I had the thought that I should stop now, end this, close the chat window before it got out of hand. I wrote: 

I’m looking at my screen and there you are in the little box. There’s an orange-yellow wall behind you, and part of a bookshelf. You look at your screen and here I am, a closet door behind me. I can’t see what is beyond the frame of your box. I can’t even make out the titles of the books on your shelf. You, on the other hand, have no idea what’s in my closet. We are both, for the moment, two dimensional beings. Flat. Without context. Suspended in a sea of pixels. Our shared soundtrack: the insipid nonsense spoken by the dean and his followers. 

She wrote: 

Tell me what’s in your closet. Or don’t I want to know? 

I wrote: 

With the door closed, there’s only darkness.

She wrote: 

I was afraid you’d say that. 

I wrote: 

Because you’re afraid of the dark? 

She wrote: 

Aren’t we all? 

I wrote: 

This is a strange closet, because it opens from two sides. One door leads into this room, the front room of the cabin, and the other door on the other side of the closet leads into a small room in the back of the house. The only way to get into that room is through this closet. It’s where I have my office, where I write. 

She wrote: 

Through the darkness and into the light. Very dramatic. Biblical. Why aren’t you there now? 

I wrote: 

I could never let the dean in there. It’s a sanctuary from everything that the dean means, represents, embodies. It is my refuge from the dean’s world. 

She wrote: 

But the dean isn’t looking at you. He’s not paying any attention to you. He barely knows you’re in the meeting. Maybe he doesn’t know. Maybe his assistant will tell him later, or give him the list of attendees, then he might know, but then the meeting will already be over. 

I wrote: 

He’s looking at everyone. You must be new here, if you don’t know that the dean is looking most intensely when he doesn’t seem to be looking at all. 

She wrote: 

Open the closet door and take me through the darkness and into your office. If you want to break boundaries, this is a good place to start. 

I wrote: 

Then you’ll become exactly what you resisted—a figure in my imagined world. 

She wrote: 

Or your imagined world be no longer belong to you. It will be mine. Or mine and yours. Shared… contested. 

I liked the sound of that. I wrote: 

Then come with me. 

I unplugged the computer, lifted it from the table, and opened the closet door. I stepped inside the space and closed the door behind me, hesitating for a few seconds in the darkness before opening the door on the other side. Though I was breathing heavily, my microphone was muted, and she couldn’t hear me—nobody could. I was alone in this house, alone for the last six months without a single visitor. When I came into the small room, I saw that the late afternoon light was coming through the back window of the house. I looked out into the field. It was overgrown, wild, untouched for years. There were old fruit trees there—apples, pears, plums—with twisted trunks and gnarled bark. Blackberry and raspberry bushes were lost in a sea of tall grass. An old white fence was in the process of decay. It had already half fallen apart. I held the computer up to give her the view of this neglect, this encroachment of nature, which seemed poised to overtake me and eventually swallow the cabin whole. Then I realized she probably couldn’t see any of it. These damn boxes were too small, the assistant dean’s head was too large—a bulbous planet around which orbited eighty or more faculty moons, all devoid of life. I put the computer on my writing desk and typed: 

Here we are. 

At that moment, the assistant dean vanished, and the dean appeared again. He started to introduce another assistant dean, who would talk to us about technology at the college and the new policies regarding remote learning. She appeared on the screen, gave a brief introduction, and then shared her screen. A new presentation of bullet points and headings and sub-headings appeared. It was agenda item #6.

She wrote in the private chat window: 

I was also writing a book this summer. It’s based on over a decade of research. Do you want to hear about it? 

I wrote: 

More than anything.

She wrote: 

There was a woman named Fatimah. She arrived in the city of Samarkand in 1403 from Shiraz. I haven’t found any record of how she traveled to Samarkand or about her life in Persia. The first words written about her come from the Timurid historian Sharif al-Din ‘Ali Yazdi. Yazdi writes that a poet from Shiraz named Fatimah appeared one day in Samarkand’s central public square, the Registan, stood up on some kind of pedestal, and declared that divine knowledge had come to her. It had come to her at night and whispered in her ear while she slept, and what the voice said was that Timur, the emperor, was “no longer”—that his reign had come to an end, that his dynasty had crumbled into dust. From now on, Fatimah said, God alone would rule the land. As Yazdi points out, Fatimah was not the first “prophet” to address the crowds of Samarkand. Nor was she the only messenger of doom. But, he tells us, there was something in her voice, in her manner, that was different, more foreboding, serious, which provoked the city guard to arrest her at once, dragging her down from the pedestal and putting her in a prison cell in the complex of the royal palace. At this time, Timur was at the height of his great power. He had just returned from leading his army against the Ottoman Sultan Bajazet, the one they called “the thunderbolt,” and Timur had crushed his rival with ease. Bajazet’s military strategy, according to Timur, had the simplicity of a child’s game, while he, Timur, had perfected his military arts through his mastery of the great “game of war”—what we now class “chess.” Timur’s chess was, in most respects, similar to the modern game, though there were key differences. The board was larger. There were additional pieces—the elephant, the giraffe. Of course, there was no bishop. Instead, they had a picket or talia, which moved in a similar way. The main difference was that so-called “Tamerlane chess” had no queen. The king was flanked by the figure of the governor or vizier on one side and the ferz, the general, on the other. The vizier and the ferz were meant as immediate protection for the king, and each could move only a single space at a time. It took a skilled player to construct the ideal defensive structure of this inner “court” amid the broader framework of the game itself. About a decade before his battle with Bajazet (Yazdi puts it in 1388), Timur had made a significant innovation in the game. He replaced the ferz, the general, with the figure of a lion. Unlike the ferz, the lion was not a defensive piece. It was the ultimate offensive weapon, able to move in any direction for as far it could go before it clashed with an opposing piece. Timur mastered the use of this weapon, such that its might would prove always decisive, and, as Yazdi reports, “when the lion was on the board, Timur never lost a game.” And while he never lost a game, he never lost a battle. In fact, as Yazdi says, Timur had a special lion figure produced. It was neither black nor white. It was carved from one large sapphire and glowed a resplendent blue. Timur used it no matter whether he played the black or the white pieces. To his opponents, and maybe to Timur, this sapphire lion seemed to possess a spiritual power, a foreknowledge of his opponent’s moves; it seemed able to spy the cracks in all constructs, all structures—and it pounced on these weaknesses without mercy. For a decade, Timur had invited the best players in the kingdom and beyond to the royal palace to challenge him. He defeated everyone who sat across from him, his sapphire lion bounding across the board, voracious, capturing everything in sight, including opposing lions, which seemed to Timur nothing but timorous cubs. One day, not long after Fatimah’s arrest, a caravan appeared in Samarkand. It had come from a distant land in the west. The leader of the caravan was a man named Naphtali. A day or two after he arrived, Naphtali requested an audience with Timur, for which he had brought one hundred gold coins as a gift. Some days later, Naphtali’s request was granted, and before he knew it, he was standing in front of the emperor. He said to Timur that news had reached his homeland that a distant king, rumored to be the most powerful man on earth, played a version of chess, the game of war, with a piece called the lion, which could move as no other piece on the board could move: diagonally, horizontally, and vertically on any given turn. In fact, Naphtali said, this concept was known in his homeland, though the piece was not called the “lion” but the “queen.” In any case, Naphtali said, where he came from there was also another piece, which was unknown to the great masters of Samarkand, but which immensely increased the complexity of play, such that all contests without it seemed to Naphtali to be simple affairs. Some people call this piece “beauty,” he said to Timur, others refer to it as “the ghost.” Naphtali opened his hands. In each palm, he held a piece in the form of a naked female figure, much like a miniature Greek statue, one white, one black. As the shock of this unholy revelation rippled through the court, Naphtali began to explain the way “beauty” or “the ghost” functioned. It took the place of the vizier, just as Timur’s lion had taken the place of the ferz, the general, on the other side of the king. Its movement was unique, he told them, because it could move in two distinct ways. The first way, like the vizier, was to move one square in any direction. That was its normal movement. Then it had a special movement, the so-called “mirror-move.” This meant that the figure could move to occupy the precise mirror opposite square on the other side of the board, such that it moved from one quadrant to the same square in the diagonally opposing quadrant. That wasn’t all, Naphtali explained. The other unique feature of the piece had to do with its method of capture, for while all other pieces on the board could theoretically capture any other—a lowly pawn could slay the lion—the figure of “beauty” or “the ghost” could only capture the lion. Therefore, the piece could not make the mirror-move unless the landing space was either unoccupied or occupied by the lion. Finally, Naphtali said, the figure of “beauty” or “the ghost” could not put the king in check. In other words, Naphtali said, the figure of “beauty” or “the ghost” was on the board for one primary purpose—as a lion hunter. The courtiers waited anxiously for Timur to respond, and when the emperor beckoned his guest forward and grasped hold of the two figures, calling at the same time for his “master of games” to bring the board and pieces, they felt relieved. Timur embraced the challenge, wanting to display to this guest, this foreigner from a distant land, his awesome strategic might. He would defeat Naphtali in the stranger’s version of the game, and news of his skill would travel back along those same paths, now from east to west, along which the caravan had come. The master of games returned, and Timur instructed him to set the board in the masculine array. Timur would play the black pieces with his sapphire lion, Naphtali would play white and begin the game. On both sides, the master of games replaced the figure of the vizier with the figure of “beauty” or “the ghost,” doing so with great dramatic flourish, so writes Yazdi in his account of the events. Unfortunately for Timur, the game itself did not match this pageantry, for Naphtali beat the emperor with ease. Timur had neglected to watch out for his opponent’s “beauty” or “ghost,” which took his lion in the early part of the game. With his lion gone, Timur’s structure crumbled, and Naphtali was merciless in his punishment of Timur’s side. Timur played better in the second game, but he ended up losing his lion midway through and then saw his position fall apart. The next dozen games went in a similar manner—either Timur lost view of “beauty” or “the ghost” or he paid too much attention to it and failed to focus adequately on other facets of play. He lost each time. The dozen games after that were even worse for the emperor. It seemed like Naphtali was improving from one game to the next, learning Timur’s habits, innovating ways to combat his best strategies, while Timur appeared lost, reactive, afraid, hesitant, his confidence rapidly draining away. There’s no need to prolong this part of the story—for months Timur played Naphtali each day. The emperor could barely sleep, lost his appetite. The only thing he wanted was to defeat the stranger, to win a game with the two figures of “beauty” or “the ghost” on the board, but this was the one thing he could not do. Naphtali beat him every time. Timur called in his advisors, his chess masters, his religious scholars. How could it be, he asked them, that he couldn’t beat the stranger? How could it be that each time they sat down at the board the stranger got better and he got worse? How could it be, finally, that each time he, Timur, shifted and innovated, the stranger remained a step ahead? The masters and the scholars tried their best to break down the games, but none of them could find an answer. Finally, a young man, a scholar at the madrassa on the Registan square named al-Rashid, approached the emperor and said that perhaps what they were looking for couldn’t be found on the board but needed to be discovered beyond it. They asked what he meant. He told them that shortly before Naphtali had come to Samarkand a young woman, who, it seemed to him, looked similar to Naphtali’s figure of “beauty” or “the ghost,” arrived in the city from Shiraz. She had come, al-Rashid said, to speak her message in the emperor’s city. She had told the crowds in the square that Timur’s rule was over, that the dynasty had come to an end, that only God ruled the land. It could be, al-Rashid maintained, that this woman from Shiraz had placed a curse on Timur, and that perhaps his inexplicable failures on the board foreordained a much grander failure, the failure of Timur’s upcoming campaign against the Empire of China, which had recently broken free of Mongol rule. Timur couldn’t believe it. How could it be that his massive power could be crushed by the mere words of a woman from Shiraz, words spoken in the public square and flanked by the opulence of the city that he had built, brick by brick, stone by stone? He sent al-Rashid away, demanding that he go to the prison and bring the woman from Shiraz to him immediately. Al-Rashid found her in her cell. She was asleep on a woven carpet, thinned almost to the point of death. Her body was weak, bony, and light as he helped her to her feet and led her down a long hallway and out into the blinding light of day. Before long, al-Rashid and Fatimah stood in front of Timur’s throne. The young cleric was clutching her by the torso, propping her up in front of the emperor. Timur demanded that she tell him what she had spoken in the square. Fatimah, strengthened by the emperor’s booming voice, straightened herself, her body steeled by a kind of inner force, and spoke as she has spoken before: Timur’s reign was over. God ruled. When will it end? Timur asked her. No, Fatimah said, it is not a question of when. Your reign, she said, is over now. You are nothing but a nomad, a wanderer, a guest in these lands. You are not a king. You are not an emperor. God is king, God is emperor here. Fatimah fell silent. Timur, incensed, leaped up and grabbed his sword. With a terrifying battle cry, he thrust forward, swung his blade, and cut off Fatimah’s head. Al-Rashid, in shock, caught the lifeless body as it collapsed toward the ground. Timur called for his master of games to fetch Naphtali. He wanted to test whether Fatimah’s death would bring back his power, would set the stage for his victory over the stranger. But Naphtali could not be found in his quarters. Timur’s men looked in the chess room, where Naphtali often passed his days in contemplation and study. They discovered that not only was Naphtali not there, but the two figures of “beauty” or “the ghost” were also gone, and not only that, Timur’s sapphire lion was nowhere to be seen. That Timur died soon after this on his way to China is perhaps an interesting conclusion to this story, though it’s not my focus. Rather, I have followed another path, another spur of the story. The young cleric, al-Rashid, when he was removing the body from the palace to have it buried in a proper religious manner, discovered a small book that Fatimah had sewn into an inside pocket of her robe. The book was a collection of her poetry, and this book of poetry completely transformed his life. Al-Rashid had been one of the rising stars at Samarkand’s madrassa, the central clerical academy in the empire. He had mastered the Qur’an by age ten, able to recite the entire book by heart. His singing or chanting was said to be perfect, both passionate and restrained, the perfect blend for prayer. Two years later, al-Rashid had acquired complete knowledge of the prophetic traditions, and a year after that, he had mastered all of the principles of the four major orthodox legal schools. His intellectual acumen was matched (or even surpassed) by his zeal and his strictness. His rejected anything that bordered on the sectarian and was adamant that no mystical traces find their way inside his religious edifice. Perhaps it was the very impenetrability of al-Rashid’s religious fortress that enabled it to collapse in such a spectacular fashion. And collapse it did. Fatimah’s small book of poems blasted holes in its walls like cannon fire. Among ruins, the young scholar found himself; among ruins, he wandered the city day and night, becoming a ghostly presence, until, not long afterwards, he was expelled from the madrassa and left the city. He made his way to the west, searching for the source of Fatimah’s wisdom, her truth and genius, the force that animated her words, that lifted her poems into another realm. This source, according to Fatimah’s poems, was another work, a cycle of poems called “The Eden Cycle,” written in the first decades of the thirteenth century by a woman named Keturah, who had led a group of one hundred Jews out of Barcelona in the wake of the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council. The group made its way to a valley of the Ebro River, where they settled what was known as the taifa of Eden, considered the smallest state to ever exist on earth. When an army of Christian crusaders razed the village, all of Eden’s inhabitants were killed. Except Keturah. Before the sword fell on her neck, Keturah, Fatimah writes, transformed into a pomegranate tree. Her legs became roots, her torso became the tree’s trunk—twisted and graceful like a dancer’s body paused in motion—her arms and head the tree’s branches and crown. And the fruits of this pomegranate tree, Fatimah writes, absorbed the spilled blood of her people. In each pomegranate seed, a life; in each seed, a soul. Fatimah believed that this pomegranate tree was still there in that valley of the Ebro River, that its roots still drew the spilled blood of humankind through its trunk and branches, ultimately depositing it in the seeds of its fruit. As Fatimah writes, to eat the seeds of the tree’s fruit is to consume, to ingest, to take in, the collective grief, the sorrow, of humankind. And if the ending of Fatimah’s first poem, “The Pomegranate Tree,” can be believed, the experience of true sorrow is the first step toward God.

The screen went blank. The chat window disappeared. It seemed like I had focused so hard on reading that I hadn’t taken a single breath since she started her story, and when the meeting suddenly ended, I found myself gasping for air, inhaling deeply, choking, coughing, until the small room around me began to spin. I blamed the dean for interrupting her. I blamed the assistant dean, and the other assistant dean, and all of the other assistant deans, and the director of the library, and the associate dean of student affairs, and the director of enrollment, and countless other vice presidents and deans and directors and heads and chairs that sought to dominate our existence through their countless bullet points and headers and sub-headers and agenda items and stock images, inserted only to break up the utterly stultifying monotony of their speech. And now this—cutting off communication between us, between me and Zahra Aziz! 

I tried to figure out a way to bring her back, at least to find the record of her story in the chat window, but she and it were gone, lost in the ephemeral digital ether. How could it be that a story like that could live for just minutes and could be wiped away without a trace, without a proper ending? And how could it be that Zahra Aziz could be gone from me without a parting, torn from me in such a mechanical yet violent way? If this is our reality, I thought, I utterly reject the real. 

I carried the computer back through the closet and into the front of the cabin. I thought about searching for Zahra Aziz online but then couldn’t bring myself to do it. As I shut the machine, I thought about Beatrix Newsome again, the actor. I remembered the scene in the film of her looking into the mirror and seeing herself as Forugh Farrokhzad. Her hands twist in the light, the camera works its way across her imperfect face, her eyes, her eyebrows. The poet as object, the objectification of a poet, the turning of words into body, voice into body, poetry into Beatrix Newsome. Language into lust. 

I looked out of the window into the evening light and thought again about boundary crossing, about transgression. Transgression: going beyond the bounds. Passing beyond. Passing over. A violation. An act of disobedience. A sin. It is a sin to pass beyond the bounds. It is a sin to violate. It is the surge of a stormy sea over the land, a flood, a destructive act. And a prelude. Naphtali’s “beauty,” his “ghost,” was the figure of transgression, the agent of sin, the breaker of boundaries—and its very presence redefined the board, placing the symbol of strength and power, the lion, in constant danger—the danger of falling in love with “beauty” or “the ghost,” with a figure in a small box on a screen, a play of light and shadow against an orange-yellow wall; the danger of falling in love with a character named Zahra Aziz. The transformation of sin into the divine; the transformation of transgression into a holy act. 


Seth Rogoff is the author of the novels First, the Raven: A Preface (Sagging Meniscus Press 2017) and Thin Rising Vapors (SMP 2018) and the nonfiction book The Politics of the Dreamscape (Palgrave 2021). He lives in Prague.

Photo: Rebekah Yip/Unsplash

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