Al-Andalus: The Hidden Mirror

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December 10, 2009

The room they rent is in the back of the home of an old widow, the sister-in-law of the former rabbi. It’s a large room, separate from the rest of the house, past the kitchen and down a dark hallway that leads out to the kitchen garden. And to that room they’ve brought their few possessions, to the back of the house, past ornate rooms that no one uses any longer. There they are creating, day by day, a refuge, a haven, their own first little home together, Saul a flute player for the vizier, and Amram, player of the stringed rebab, and a teacher in the synagogue.

In the yard, in the kitchen garden, they watch the last of widow’s servants, a woman even older than she is, bent over the wild jungle of herbs, as they stretch a length of patterned cloth from Tangiers over the window.

“She comes out here to watch us, you know, and to listen to us when we make music,” Saul says to Amram, as he knocks a rusty nail into one corner of the cloth with a large stone, which he passes to his lover.

“If we give her a little bit of a thrill, is that such a bad thing?” Amram says, with a laugh. Then the two step back to admire their handiwork, their choice of fabric, and the way the last afternoon light streams through it, painting dark and light through the cloth, now a flaming dance of arabesques. Light bouncing off the tiny wood-framed mirror on the opposite wall, above their bed.

They stand in the middle of their small room, their large world, hand in hand. Amram is humming and Saul recognizes the melody. It’s part of the chant for the Torah portion of the week, “Ki Tisa.” Amram must be teaching it to one of the rich men in the city, who will on Shabbat rise up in the synagogue and chant it himself, during the service. When Amram comes to a part that he knows, Saul joins him. It was a shared love of music that first brought them together, finding each other night after night in the same tavern, come to hear Husain ibn Sina, the most famous oud player in the city, a blind old man with fingers so long, caressing the strings, that they seem to have an extra knuckle.

“It’s my favorite portion,” Amram says to Saul. He can chant the Torah from beginning to end, and loves teaching the chants to others, to boys studying for their bar mitzvah, and to the rich men who pay for the privilege of chanting during the service.

“What do you like about it?” Saul asks, pulling away to straighten one side of the red and black Berber rug that covers the stone floor.

“We’re in it. That’s why I like it.”

His lover looks puzzled. “People like us aren’t anywhere in the Torah, Amram. We’re forbidden.”

Amram smiles. “Remember how you used to think, before we met, that you were alone in the world, the only one made like you, anywhere? Never imagining that Adam and Eve must have had sons and grandsons just like us. But now, in the street, in the market, in the bathhouse, the synagogue, you tug on my sleeve and whisper, ‘He’s one, isn’t he?’ and you’re always right. Well, the Torah is just like that. You just have to know how to see. How to listen. Then you can find us.”

Sitting down in a narrow alcove, on the edge of their bed, Amram closes his eyes, takes a long slow breath, and begins to chant in Hebrew, sound coming from the back of his long dark throat. “And Adonai would speak to Moses face-to-face, the way a man speaks to his fellow man.”

His voice is rich and deep. It always moves Saul, who has settled down on their only seat other than the floor, a rickety old wooden stool that the widow gave them. “But where are we in that verse? I don’t understand.”

Amram smiles. “Perhaps God, the Divine Beloved, was courting Moses.” Rather than being comforted, Saul shudders. “Don’t say that! It’s not right.”

Amram stifles a laugh. His tender lover, from so devout a family, still struggles with his nature, and he knows not to offend him, for offense can easily turn into rage, or, worse than rage, silence. He reaches out to Saul, who pulls back, as if the extended hand would burn him. “One more verse. Please,” he begs. Saul gives him the smallest of nods.

“See, I’ve called by name Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah,” Amram chants, slowly. “And I’ve filled him with the spirit of God in wisdom and in understanding and knowledge and in every kind of work, to form conceptions to make in gold and in silver and in bronze, and in cutting stone for setting and in cutting wood – for making things in every kind of work. And I, here. I’ve put Oholiab, son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, with him.” That last part, about Oholiab, he chants a little louder, adding emphasis to the words, “I’ve put,” and “with him.”

Saul sits motionless. Amram is afraid that he’s offended him again. But then a large smile erupts across his face, so wide that his teeth sparkle and his dark eyes shine. “Like us. Just like us, Amram. I hear what you’re saying now. That God brought Oholiab and Bezalel together, just like he brought us together. To make everything for the tabernacle. To make the ark. To make something special. A sacred place. Just like our room.” He’s grinning and Amram stands and grabs him up in his arms. “Exactly. And now you hear it. Now you see it. The hidden mirror in the Torah, my love. That’s always there. Waiting. Just like I was waiting for you last year, in Ayesha’s tavern.”

Now the last light of day has faded. Saul lights a single oil lamp, while Amram tunes the strings of his pear-shaped rebab. And in the flickering light, seated on their Berber rug, the songs of Saul’s wooden flute and Amram’s rebab, dance and marry, in their tiny room, their tabernacle, knees pressed together, face to shining face, like the cherubim on top of the holy ark, the place where God speaks from.

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