Friday, June 6, 2008

Suleyman the Magnificent: Birthday Celebration. Part 2

From afar she could see the glimmering flashes of light, which illuminated the Great Hall.

“Over a thousand beeswax candles and several hundred oil lamps have been lit for Prince Suleyman’s fete and to some extent yours as well,” murmured Lady Maryam.

There was a rhythmic hum of conversation emanating from the Great Hall.

The sounds are light hearted and gleeful. Nothing like the wild and raucous parties many Russians indulged in during celebratory holidays and holydays in Russia. The presence of corn alcohol and grape wines surely contributes to such wildness. Of course Islam forbids the use of alcohol. I think I prefer the happy sobriety of the Ottoman society, she mused.

She walked slowly and deliberately. I must not rush headlong into my destiny or as Princess Mother calls it “Kismet”. It will come to me the moment I enter the room. Her heart quickened. Hush, calm down and be at peace, she urged herself.

Lady Maryam stepped into the arch way massed with yellow and white tulips with Hurrem by her side. She squeezed her hand tightly and said through her teeth gazing straight ahead.

“Stand here with your head high, shoulders pushed back slightly, straight back and slowly count to five. Then and only then do we truly go past the tulip arches and let events unfold.”

The peripheral vision of Princess Mother Hafsa was as good as a Peregrine falcon. "My son, your Auntie, Lady Maryam with Lady Hurrem followed by her attendants has arrived. Let us greet them.”

“Indeed Mother. I shall be right behind you,” he replied. This is after all my Mother’s villa and she is hosting the birthday celebrations so I must always give her precedence, he thought.

Suleyman was elated to see Golden Laughing Eyes but somewhat disappointed that a gauzy veil shielded her countenance from everyone including himself. He could not help feeling the beautiful forces that issued forth from her yellow robed and veiled persona.

Perhaps she’ll sing a lively song or two if I ask her. It is my birthday after all. Oh! It’s also her natal day. I forgot to ask Mother if I may gave her a gift. I had better ask her before other things overtake me and the evening will have vanished.

Princess Mother Hafsa and Lady Maryam embrace affectionately. Hurrem observes that they call each other by their first names.

“Welcome Maryam. Thank you for bringing Hurrem with you. Come in Zelfa, Suheyla and Zahira.”

Thank you Hafsa. This promises to be a special day for all of us, but in particularly for Suleyman and Hurrem.

“Auntie,” Suleyman bowed, took her proffered hand and touched her hand with his forehead.

“I wish you a mirthful Birthday, my dear Suleyman,” said she cheerily.

Hurrem followed suit and found the Prince repeating the ritual. Thank the Lord for the veil. He cannot see that I am flustered.

Suleyman took his mother aside and murmured into her ear."Have I your approval to remember Hurren's birthday today with a small memento?"

"I'm certain that it will leave her elated. May I ask what it is?"

"It's a calligraphy set in porcelain and lapis lazuli with the writing quills in gold."

"You are a thoughtful and sensitive young man as well as bright and brave warrior."

The Great Hall reminded her of the immense Cathedral in which her Papa /Baba had often preached. “Why ever not, both are of Byzantine origin. I think that nothing lasts forever. That saddens me. Be not sad Hurrem, not today of all days. You must only think golden thoughts and wishes.”

Masses of yellow and white tulips and roses garlanded and festooned the pillars and walls of the hall. Several round tables in gold tablecloths glistened from the gold embroidery and the yellow roses and tulips, which seemed as if they were locked in embrace.

“That is to symbolize Istanbul’s unique position as part of her body is in Europe and the rest lies in Asia,” explained Suleyman.

“Hurrem, take a look at the birthday cake that my chef from France has created for Suleyman. You will also have one though not as elaborate because the culinary staff literally did not have enough time. I promise you, next year you shall have an unforgettable birthday cake,” pronounced The Princess Mother.

She drew in her breath. The white and yellow cake was ten feet tall. Fifteen beeswax candles about a meter high stood atop a circular glass plate, which, gave the appearance of gliding over the cake. A gilded tower complete with golden steps surrounded it to its pinnacle. A lever lowered the tower as the cake shrunk in height.

“I thought this was to be an intimate family reunion,” whispered Hurrem.

“It is, Suleyman always shares his birthday cake with the rest of his military entourage and his pages," whispered back Princess Hafsa.

Four men who appeared to be in various stages of maturity formed a circle around Suleyman and talked softly among themselves.

"Who are those men? I think they are important," queried Hurrem.

“More lessons, my dear. I’ll begin with the youngest one. The tall young man with the dark gray woolen robe is studying to be a Sufi. He is Sut Karash, milk brother to Suleyman. The elegant man in the green caftan with the matching turban is Imam Malik, Suleyman’s Arabic tutor since he was four years old. Standing next to him is Suleyman’s physician Mordechai. He is my father and taught me everything there is to know about medicine. We are Judeans. My father and Imam Malik witnessed Suleyman’s birth from behind a screen. Thus, they have tutored him in the Qur’an and in the Torah respectively since he was a child. I was the midwife who delivered Suleyman. They are very devoted friends. Imam Kemal, who is turbaned in blue, is the most influential cleric in the Ulema – the religious Council. In keeping with the urbane nature of Suleyman Iman Kemal is a Kurd. He looks up to them and they hold their young Prince in high esteem. They all have the highest hopes for him,” replied Lady Maryam.

“That is the beauty of being veiled. I can study them to my heart’s content. I can feel their eagle eyes upon me, penetrating my invisible veils. Let them. I am not afraid. They are learned men like my father. I wonder if any of them will be my tutors?”

Princess Hafsa linked her fingers into Hurrem and said softly, ”you need to meet the Muslim Imams and the Judean teacher of Suleyman. You will begin your study of the Qur’an tomorrow in Arabic.”

“But Princess Mother, I don’t know what to say.”

“You are not expected to say anything today. Let them do all the talking and the asking. Don’t give them your hand. Just make a slight bow to each man, except for Imam Kemal in blue. He is Primus inter Pares in the Ulema. You must lower your head and keep it down longer. Cultivate him with your piety. Someday it might prove to be fruitful."

“I am in your hands my Princess Mother,” she murmured as she felt herself being gently led towards the holy men and Suleyman.

“Would you not say instead that you are in the hands of God, my lovely child?”

“Umm, at this precise moment I think that being in your resourceful and powerful hands suits me more,” she replied without the slightest hesitation.

Princess Hafsa smothered a hearty chuckle and cautioned her with a soft “shhhh.”

Hurrem did exactly as she was told. She bowed slightly towards Sut Karash, Suleyman’s peer and milk brother; kept her head down a few seconds longer as she faced Imam Malik and Master Mordechai. She honored Imam Kemal with an even longer one although it was barely noticed except by Sulkeyman and the Imam himself.

Imam Kemal was the first one to address her. “So you are the musician, singer and composer brought to us by Princess Hafsa. Music is closest to Godliness. Don’t you think so Golden Laughing Eyes?”

His attitude was simple and forthright with no artifice. She felt at peace in his presence. In fact the four pious and erudite men gave her a great sense of serenity.

“Yes Imam Kemal. I think that it the reason why the Prophet Mohammed asked the Ethiopian Bilal to call the people to prayer in musical chants, after he had learnt all the shuras and hadiths,” she replied, taking the utmost care to keep her voice as respectful and as mellifluous as possible.

A hint of a smile formed on his lips but he remained silent. No one else spoke. This did not render her uneasy or nervous.

“I love Silence. Music is full of pauses. Silence in this case might be more golden than gold. Who ever said human beings had to babble on continuously in conversation?"

"Hurrem is relaxed among us even in the midst of our silence, which in truth speaks volumes. If they are roses they will bloom," pondered Imam Kemal.

Jibril, the Officer of the Janissaries permanently assigned to Princess Hafsa’s Villa Krasivaya approached her. He made a point of greeting the Imams first.

“Salam Aleikum,” he said bowing his head almost to his chest.

“Aleikum Salam,” they replied with informal dignity.

And then he turned towards Princess Hafsa and did not attempt to hide the urgency in his voice.

“Princess Hafsa, Sultan Selim is on his way here. His estimated time of arrival is exactly 15 minutes from now,” he said in heavily accented Turkish, one of the Mongol-Ugric tongues.Officer Jibril was Serbian from Kosovo, a proud warrior of Islam first and second a dedicated Officer to Sultan Selim.

“Thank you Officer Jibril for the advance notice. We are ready to receive him. We realize Sultan Selim is a very busy man. Suleyman and I appreciate the fact that he has taken the time from his endless affairs of war and state to come today,” replied the Princess in almost flawless Turkish.

“Princess Hafsa, the Sultan himself has informed us of his forthcoming visit. It must be portentous,” said Imam Kemal who had always shown his respect and esteem for Princess Hafsa and the extraordinary way she had brought up Suleyman.

The pages ascended the round tower, which surrounded the immense birthday cake.

“Come on Ibrahim. Let us join them and help them light my candles,” exclaimed Suleyman.

It was only at that moment that Hurrem saw a tall, olive skinned young man not much older than Suleyman sprint from the far corner of the Great Hall to join him.

“Who is he and why does he have such a casual manner around Suleyman,” she murmured directly into the ear of Princess Hafsa.

“That is Ibrahim, my son’s best friend since the age of five. His parents are Greek fishermen. They now own dozens of fishing boats thanks to him. Ibrahim is highly intelligent and is endowed with an eye for detail like a Carthusian monk. He will make an extraordinary Administrator for Suleyman someday in the not too distant future,” replied Princess Hafsa.

Ibrahim is a formidable opportunist. I wonder how much he truly loves Prince Suleyman? Only time will tell us that. In the meantime I shall be outwardly friendly and charming but my inner voices warn me to remain ever vigilant regarding Ibrahim. I need not voice this opinion to the Princess Mother or least of all to Suleyman who loves him more than Ibrahim seems to love him. I am only 13 years old. I have often been wrong. So, we shall see as time goes by, reflected Hurrem.

“May I watch their preparations and maneuvers in the tower as the young men led by Suleyman and Ibrahim prepare to light the regal candles?”

“Certainly Hurrem. You shall meet Ibrahim later in the evening in case you are curious to know more about him first hand."

“I am very interested in learning all I can about all the individuals Prince Suleyman has surrounded himself with since his child hood. It will aid me in understanding him and as a consequence in understanding them so I can truly become his best friend.”

“Let’s watch what they are doing shall we," Princess Hafsa told her with a hug.

They filled all the steps, and then slowly and deliberately passed oil lit torches until the men at the top – Suleyman and Ibrahim among them, found themselves eyeball to eyeball with the tall candles. One by one they lit them.

“Hurrah! We did it in record time. Thank you Ibrahim. Thank you all. Now we must descend swiftly and stand at attention for my father’s arrival.”

Cheers greeted Suleyman when he touched the blue veined marble tiles and he acknowledged this by smiling at all those who stood around him.

The candles will all be shimmering by the time my Babba, (Sultan Selim) arrives with his select group of Janissaries,” grinned Suleyman.

Suddenly the roar of hundreds of horses riding to a rhythm of kettle drums on the cobble stoned street almost overpowered those inside the villa. They waited for the larger than life figure of the Sultan with conflicting emotions.

The Imams counseled him on religious matters.

“Unlike Suleyman the Sultan looked at life and war in clear terms of black and white, friends/allies or foes. One’s foes had to die. One’s friends received rich rewards,” considered Imam Malik as he sipped the last dregs of his strong Mokha coffee.

"My spies inform me that the Sultan has never attended any of his numerous sons’ birthdays, nor much less, gifted then with fine horses or remembered the days their mothers birthed them. I will not have much longer to wait for yet another confirmation of his preference for my son as the future Sultan of the Ottoman Empire."

The Healer Mordechai edged nearer to his closest friend, Imam Kemal. “Kemal, dearest friend, you and I witnessed the birth of Suleyman under the most positive auspices and confluence of our Kabbalistic calendar as well as your Islamic calendar. Yet I cannot help feeling apprehension for our Prince. The intrigues taking place in the harem and the jockeying for position among his half-brothers are infested with evil ambitions. The Law of Fratricide is a long tradition among the Mongols and we both know that the Sultan has no intentions of revoking the Law.”

“That is sadly correct my dearest Mordechai. Study keenly the other side of these sharp double-edged swords. Once upon a time, the Ottomans were Mongols. Today they are very far from their steppes and tundras. As we both did on that fateful November day 15 years ago, we gaze at our Suleyman with the same wonder which filled us then. Only more so, for our studies of the planets and the stars and of human nature reassures that the Sultan will find other ways to ensure the accession of Suleyman to the throne.”

‘If everything goes well… as a rule, nothing ever does. I am holding onto the prophesies in the Kabbalah and that alone tranquilizes me.”

“Sultan Selim has not persecuted the Sufi mystics unlike other Islamic Rulers in Iran and Arabia Felix; on the other hand the Sufis throughout Turkey and beyond have not received any assistance or support from him either. I suppose that is something to give thanks to Our Beloved,” (God the Creator) reflected Sut Karash, Suleyman’s milk brother.

Fra - Brother Domenico, the Franciscan friar who was a confidante of Princess Hafsa observed the many scenes unfolding before his eyes with a certain detachment. Like the Founder of his Order, Saint Francis of Assisi, he sought simplicity and did not fear poverty. “Never a beggar of the soul and spirit. Suleyman is rich in those qualities despite his flaire for opulence.”

“I am feeling a jumble of vibrations as we all stand and wait for the Sultan to make his entry. Fear is present at this moment but I also perceive joy and great expectations. Che sara, sara,” prayed Hurrem silently.

I have always found my father to be thoughtful, affectionate and generous towards me. Yet at the back of my mind, Sultan Selim the Cruel, which is the name he is known by allies, friends and enemies does strike a chord of awareness at how vulnerable I am to his decisions and even to his whims. There is still the nagging question of seven half- brothers before me inline for the throne. Really, it’s all in the hands of Allah. However, I will not make it easy for him or for any of my step-brothers to kill me, should it ever come to that, may God forbid it.

Still he braced himself for whatever would befall him. He admired Julius Caesar’s bravery and stoic nature in the face of impossible odds. He was not a gambler by nature, He would never say Iacta Alea Est. Let the dice fly. Well, at the very least, he hoped that he would never say it for it implied a recklessness and an undaunted bravery. He believed in the pursuit of God and Knowledge and some of the knowledge gleaned and discerned and perceived signified the correct information necessary in order to become a formidable General and Conqueror.

The Grand Stairs leading to the Great Hall reverberated the enveloping laughter of Sultan Selim and his Janissaries and Sipahis.

An elegant man who was closer to this side of tall, sporting a tan as deep as the color of chestnuts and thick arms that resembled gnarled roots of a baobab tree bounded into the hall. He stood erect, hazel eyes darting and nostrils flaring.

My father is a Predator, but even predators protect their young. His demeanor tells me that he has wonderful news to tell.

Whatever news Selim has to say it can only go my son’s way. I can tell.

"Come into my arms ravishing Hafsa, Om Suleyman (Arabic for Mother) and Confidante of the Sultan, “ he declared, sweeping her off her feet and clasping her against his royal blue robe.

In those rare moments in which Sultan Selim allowed himself human sentiments, Princess Hafsa considered it wise and prudent to remain speechless, smiling and pliant against his massive and hard frame.

He espied Suleyman standing close behind his mother. His son was majestic, serene and his grey blue eyes betrayed his happiness at seeing him, his father.

”He will develop into a beautiful specimen of manhood. He’ll be wiser and more compassionate than I ever was or will be. I was not gifted with a mother such as Hafsa. Mine spoiled me but did not teach me or form me as a man and leader. I can’t even be sure she loved me,” he mulled in painful recollection.

“Babba, We are honored. I am honored that you took the time to come to my mother’s Villa for my birthday celebrations.” His voice was crystalline and conveyed his pure joy. His demeanor was natural and spontaneous.

“There is nothing deceitful or cloying about Suleyman’s attitude,” considered Sultan Selim in silence.

And then he slowly disengaged himself from Princess Hafsa’s arms, placed her delicately on the marble tiles. Suleyman took a step forward and taking the initiative, clasped his father to his arms and kissed his twice on both cheeks. This display of affection moved Selim.

”The youth is not afraid of me. I can tell. He is truly possessed of a filial devotion towards me. I thank and praise Allah for this.”

Sultan Selim had a deep wound in his heart because his mother had never loved him though he would never, never tell. Princess Hafsa had filled i in partt with her loyalty and her genuine friendship and counsel. Suleyman had accomplished the rest with his enthusiasm and eagerness to spend as much time with his father as he could. They remained entwined in each other’s arms.

“Did you like the horses from Araby,” Sultan Selim asked in a horse whisper.

‘Babba, I was overwhelmed with all 50 of them. I chose the handsomest and brightest white stallion with the incredible flowing mane like Pegasus. I have named him Jamil, ( handsome in Arabic). I gave an ebony beauty to Ibrahim so that he would not feel left out and nurse resentments towards me,” he replied sotto voce with a slightly quivering voice.

“Good, my Son. Now let us enjoy the bounty which your mother, my Special Princess Hafsa has prepared for us.”

They parted. The stillness in the Great Hall was ponderous. Sultan Selim bowed and pierced the quietude with a thunderous voice injected with gaiety.

“Salam Aleikum!”

“Aleikum Salam!” they replied. Sultan Selim was in a jovial mood. Everything would proceed smoothly.

“Good. Now that we have dispensed with the religious greetings let us move on to more practical matters. That birthday cake is more tempting to me than a houri,” declared Sultan Selim in an amused tone of voice.

Indeed, the ten foot high cake with its candles one meter high shone like a pyramid of sweets in the Heavens.

"And well it should,” laughed Princess Hafsa. “I designed it and had the chef bake it layer by layer. It contains the most heavenly delicacies you and Suleyman are fond of.

“Imam Malik, Iman Kemal, Doctor Mordechai and Fra Domenico will you please accompany me, Om Suleyman and Suleyman on the steps leading up to the top? Once we are there, the rest of our honored guests can follow.”

He linked arms with Princess Hafsa and Suleyman.

“Hafsa , are you sure we are not going to come crashing down on our whatsis?”

Suleyman bit his tongue. “Babba, the Mater’s chef is as good as your engineers,” he retorted in silence. After all, the question was directed at my Mother, she was never at a loss for words. She will know just what to say,” he laughed inwardly.

‘You must be joking Selim.” He was smiling broadly.

“Of course I am, but one never knows. The best laid plans of mice and women…”

“Beloved, if this tower collapses it might kill us all but it will not make us look ridiculous,” she replied quickly.

“A point that I can appreciate. On that note, Suleyman and I will ascend with you to show you how much we trust you and the people you have always chosen to perform the most intricate and complicated tasks. Do you know that this revolving tower on wheels with its levers will make a superb war machine?”

The thought had come to her as the chef who used to be a surveyor and his assistants labored over the tower but she certainly was not going to reveal this to her husband in everything but the formalities.

“Is that so my Sultan?” she gave him a radiant smile and coquettishly tossed her veiled turban. “ I hope you will explain it to me in the not too distant future.”

“I see exactly what Babba means. Actually with minor adjustments we could make it even more lethal,’” opined Suleyman as their golden babouches touched the top step of the tower.

“Spoken like a true warrior,” said Sultan Selim.

A carved wrought iron railing, which reached up to Suleyman’s waist, surrounded the tower. Lying on a jeweled scabbard on the floor of the step was a long golden cake cutter.

It must have been commissioned by Mater expressly for this occasion.

”Thank you dearest Mater. You have thought of everything, don’t you agree Babba?”

“I most certainly do. My compliments Hafsa. You are the only woman I know who always surpasses herself. You never disappoint in any way.”

“May I do the honors," asked Suleyman directing his gaze first towards his Mother and then to his Father.

They held hands, nodded and smiled their assent. Suleyman lifted the golden cutter and kept it by his right side, blade down. He was waiting for all the guests to fill the tower.

The religious clerics, the Judean physician and the young Sufi slowly ascended the step on which stood Sultan Selim, Princess Hafsa and Suleyman. More embraces, hugs and words of affection were exchanged.

Folowing close behind them was Lady Maryam with Hurrem on her right and Ibrahim on her left.

“Not only must I thank Princess Hafsa every day of my life for carrying and giving me such a splendid son in every way, I thank Lady Maryam from the bottom of my heart for delivering such a strong and healthy boy with no complications for either one of them. We owe all this of course to the source, my trusted Doctor Mordechai who trained his daughter in all the knowledge possible and more of Medicine,” said Sultan Selim bending low to take her hand and raise it towards his heart and then to his forehead as a sign of respect.

“What is going on? Babba is full of unending compliments tonight!

And suddenly he fixed his eyes on Hurrem. ”I know about you, young Lady Hurrem of the Golden Laughing Eyes. Princess Hafsa has told me quite a lot.”

She decided that silence and a humble demeanor was the best reply. She bowed deeply and placed her right hand towards her heart, lips and forehead.

I am going to do exactly as I have seen Lady Maryam do.

The Sultan ran his eyes toward Ibrahim. “My how you have grown since the last time I saw you. I hope you and Suleyman perform your Mongol and Chinese martial arts every day. I am grateful for your true friendship towards my son. After all the two of you grew up together since early childhood.”

“No matter how gracious the Sultan is, he always puts me on the qui vive. I can’t explain it but he and Suleyman inspire me to take care and behave impeccably.”

Ibrahim gave him the Islamic warrior’s salute. Right hand elevated at a right angle to one’s body , much like the Roman Ave. Then the right arm was brought across the chest where one’s hand touched one’s heart. As this was done, he bowed and said "Sultan Selim.”

The attendants and slaves filled the steps and smiled their greetings towards their Sultan.

“I bid you a most cordial welcome. I know Princess Hafsa as well as Prince Suleyman is very fond of all of you. That means that you are, without exception under my protection.”

It was a feat to accomplish but every man and woman, attendant and slave knelt spontaneously and stood up as if they were one body.

Suleyman paused to admire the yellow and white cake with the white icing made of pure cream in the shape of tulips and roses. The candles cast a shadow on the vaulted ceiling and gave a golden glow to the cake.

“I think I shall create new traditions. First , Iman Kemal could pronounce a small prayer, followed by Physician Mordechai and then Fra Domenico in their respective faiths. I hope Sut Karash will not refuse to recite a poem. Last but not least my cup will overflow if Hurrem sings one of her songs a capella. My joy will be complete if my parents say a few words. For as long as they and I am alive I pray that this new customs be observed. Then and only then, as the 15 candles burn their light and fire towards the skies should we sing a song of felicitation. After which Ibrahim, Sut Karash, Hurrem and I should blow out the candles with the fervent wish that none of us is so maladroit as to fall into the cake,” affirmed Suleyman to wild and enthusiastic applause.

“The Princess and I can forgive all you young people anything so to speak, except drowning in a beautiful and extravagant birthday cake,” said the Sultan in a lightly mocking voice.

It was Suleyman’s irrepressive humor showing forth. The chef and his assistants had asked the blacksmiths at the Bazaar in Istanbul to fashion long candle snuffers in an amalgam of bronze and slack. They resembled the ones used to turn out the candles at the high altar in the Byzantine Cathedral of Haghia Sophia before the fall of Constantinople- now Istanbul. Mehmet the Conqueror, Suleyman’s great-grandfather had immediately converted the Cathedral into a Mosque.

The young people bent over with an almost uncontrollable laughter."The cake is composed of layers, said layers are of light birchwood. Thanks to the ingenuity of the Chef, we could not drown if we tried," retorted Suleyman.

"I could not agree with Prince Suleyman more. The worse that can happen to us if we're clumsy is to have our faces  caked in cream and pastry. That's preferable to mud," said Hurrem. 

“Listen she's right. So let’s be organized about this. Ibrahim and Sut Karash should each put out a total of eight candles. Since Hurrem and I share the same birthday I think it is only fair that I should take care of three candles and Hurrem four because I was taught that Ladies always come first.

“Hurrah Suleyman! Hurrem Hurrah,” exclaimed the Sultan.

That was the signal to begin the ceremonies. Imam kemal of the Ulema led the festive group in prayer

"Allahu Akbar! he intoned.

To be continued.


  1. "Nothing like the wild and raucous parties many Russians indulged in during celebratory holidays and holydays in Russia."

    Reminds me of the apocryphal legend of how and why the Russians converted to Christianity. Circa 988, Prince Vladimir of Kiev solicited Jewish, Muslim and Christian teachers to explain their respective religions to him, so that he could choose the best one for his people. (Yes the conversion of Russia was very much a "top-down" thing.) He thought Judaism sounded good, but as Jews had a long history of being persecuted, that wasn't a very good selling point. Then he thought Islam sounded almost perfect - and Islam had a lot of "soft power" prestige in that era - but the sticking point was that Islam proscribed alcohol, so he knew he could never sell it to the Russians, and so Christianity was chosen by default.

    Probably not a true story, but a funny one.

    Then there's a more believable story about one of the pagan English kings circa 600, who (with very typical English humour) told some Christian monks, "Christianity might be true and all that, but I'd rather be in Hell with my ancestors than in Heaven with you guys." HA! An antecedent of Mark Twain's, "Choose Heaven for climate and Hell for company."

    (To any especially pious readers out there: That was a joke. That's the whole point. And God is the Greatest Comedian. Life is a Divinely authored Comedy, and the Resurrection is the punchline, and the joke is on those who choose not to enjoy Life.)

    Which reminds me of what a wise old Irish-Catholic nun asked me on Christmas night. She was crippled, by the way, and in constant pain. Over some wine she asked me, "John, what to you think God's first question will be to you, after you die?" I didn't know. She said, "God will ask you: 'Did you enjoy yourself?'"

    And one more thing about Muslims and drugs. Most of them don't drink (except for some in Turkestan and Indonesia et al), but I've known some Dervishes who, although teetotalers, smoke marijuana. (I don't.) And then there are many other kinds of mind-altering and potentially mind-destroying substances NOT prohibited in the Koran, like "reality TV" shows and Murdoch media...

  2. PS, and then there's what I heard from a European diplomat who was posted in Saudi Arabia for a few years. In that superficially most strictly Wahabbist country, where the official religion very harshly proscribes and condemns alcohol, whenever his elite Saudi guests would visit him in his diplomat's residence, the first thing they would ask him for would be some cognac or whisky or schnapps. "Hey, where's the SCHNAPPS?" were the first words out of their mouths.

    Kind of like how, although our Church's catechism publicly eschews astrology, the largest astrological library in the world is in the Vatican, and the 12 astrological signs are sculpted into the bottom of St Peter's Throne, and they also decorate one of the 12th century stained glass windows at Chartres Cathedral.

    In all - ALL - institutional religions, just like in political and economic hierarchies (all of which I believe are necessary evils in this world), the elites allow licenses for themselves which they do not allow for their followers.
    This does not necessarily invalidate the truths of those religions, nor does it mean that there should be no hierarchical authority in religion. But that's just how it is; the temporal authorities of ALL institutional religions, are and always will be morally tainted and corrupt. This is why I, as a Catholic, have such great respect and even reverence for Martin Luther...


Isabel Van Fechtmann

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