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Friday, October 5, 2007

Chapter Two: The Half Prince of Timbuktu

Facing the Emperor

The centre of the dimly lit room had about five rows that meandered in a maze on a white carpet. The room, with its artwork, was a daze and one felt lost in a fantasy when amongst its walls. At the entrance to the labyrinth within the room by the edge of the carpet, was a bowl filled with water. The carpet, together with the maze, curatored one amongst rows stacked with a rich collection of books that made up the Emperor’s library.

The generational collection ranged from mathematics, chemistry, physics, optics, astronomy, medicine, Islamic sciences, history, geography, the tradition of Islam's Prophet Mohammed, government legislation and treatise to jurisprudence. The large open space doubled as a meditation room. The holy spot occupied a circular-like structure the king had called a Bahija at the centre of the maze.

“This is the only place in the world that has a spirit. This very room you find yourself in,” said the Emperor as he emerged from the maze, stepping on the strapless sandals he had placed at the edge of the carpet. “A lucky few who have been in here have gone on to achieve great things in life. The hallowedness amongst these walls has opened their third ear which has the ability to listen to the song of the heart. Where are they now?” he asked almost arrogantly as he dipped his hands in a bowl and splashed his face. “My dear friend, they have become men and women of honour amongst their peers.”

“My Emperor, I am testimony to the awe of the sanctity of this room. Of that labyrinth. On the rare occasion that chance had permitted me to meditate together with a friend in the heart of this Bahija, I came out with a joyful heart and a wiser mind,” said Abubakar as he walked towards the low lying cluster of sofas by the books.

The Emperor had been meditating for the past three hours as part of his Sunday routine.


“So what brings you here my dear friend Abubakar? It is only when there is a disheartening matter that you only plan to catch me following my purity of heart and clarity of mind,” said the Emperor as he sat along Abubakar.

“This matter would not warrant a better time than when a man is at his most peaceful with himself,” said Abubakar.

He coughed in nervousness before continuing, “My honorable Lord, a man’s natural journey of life is to embrace happiness provided by his material and the laughter of his loved ones. But his true joy is to fulfill the destiny called upon him by his heart.” Abubakar now stood to walk towards the edge of the entrance to the Bahija.

“What is it that you need? You can speak your mind freely with a friend,” the Emperor assured him.

“If I was not in support of this. If I did not think it was worthy of your attention, I would not propose it, spending your tranquil energy on waste,” he said as he turned to walk towards the Emperor. “But it is worthy of your consideration. My dear friend, it pains me as much as smile confronts my face to let you know that Khalifah has heard the call of his heart. He asks that you hear him for he needs to follow the path his heart calls him to,” he said as the Emperor dipped his face into his hands.

There was silence for a moment. None of them said anything as the Emperor’s face lay buried for what qualified as forever. It was not until the Emperor took a deep breath that sounded like roar in the quite room that Abubakar approached, “I told him it is unthinkable and unceremonious. That it simply cannot be. My dear friend, you should have been there yesterday when his heart cried on my words. A cry that begged to follow a dream.”

“He is always one full of surprises. Just like his father when he attacks, although I saw this one from a distance. But I cannot allow this. You were right when you told him this simply cannot be,” said the Emperor with a stern voice. “I sympathies with his heart to walk distant lands to capture its joy, but that young man’s destiny is to rule Timbuktu. It is here he must find happiness and nowhere else,” said the Emperor as Abubakar was interrupted in his answer by a knock on the door.

The Emperor signaled two men in to his exclusive sanctuary with a nod of the head. Bowing in greetings by the door, the priest then walked in followed by Khalifah who whispered what everyone assumed to be a greeting. His sleep deprived eyes were struggling to paint the white tiles that added purity to the room. He was in a somber mood although within a room that was also his refuge once a week in the evenings, although he now felt it was not to do him any favour.

“My Emperor, these are not easy news. I would not wish them on the enemies of the Almighty, who now unabashedly parade the breadth of the earth unhidden. But my Emperor needs to think upon these news and your heart feel them,” begged the priest as he tapped the prince on the shoulder demanding they walk closer toward the two.

“My son, the only heir to the throne wants to walk, and I have to let it be?” asked the Emperor not looking for an answer.

“It was the three of us, in this very same room twenty five years ago who decided to secure your future as an heir. It was not an easy task to maneuver with the G’bara. But in that we were a success,” he said as he stood facing inside his maze which seemed to mirror the difficulty of the issue itself.

“Since I had been guiding you over the years to silence the noise in your head so you can hear the song of your heart, it never dawned on me this was to be the music. It is a little unsettling a tune to an old ear,” he said almost in a whisper. “My son,” he continued, “I felt pain to be denied an heir in my marriages, but such pain was bearable to a soldier’s heart. But this, this Khalifah, will send a once peaceful heart to the depth of darkness. It just cannot be,” he said as his eyes filled with water. He used his cloak to catch the water before it could soak his pristine beard.

“The Almighty is most present where there is sorrow my Emperor,” started the priest.

“The mood filling this room will not linger forever. It will pass and a solution will be granted when we least expect my dear friend,” said Abubakar now holding the Emperor’s both shoulders. “You always reminded your army that a soldier forced into battle is like a torn man sent to die with an arrow to his back. That a man must be willing to steer his faith into the battlegrounds as it is the faith and will of his heart that wins the victory, not the will of another man or the sharpened arrow,” Abubakar said in reminiscence.

“Father,” called Khalifah, “it is with peace of heart that I can only rule over this great kingdom with success like you do. But it is such peace that I do not have. My heart must learn first to feel its joy and my recent meditation guides me to do so in isolation. This is in deed unceremonious and my apologies, but the call of my heart bears some honor.”

“Son, my son, you speak of things that are beyond you,” the Emperor started a little irritated. “I should not allow you to act in hazard to your future. It is also my honorable responsibility to the people of Timbuktu to nurture them a fit heir who will one day rule with love and insight,” he said as he paced towards Khalifah. “But you are right on one thing, one confused heart that cannot be led by its own master cannot rule seven hearts, let alone thousands of hearts of this city,” he said as he coldly stared at Khalifah.

“However, you have discovered that principle of discovering and maintaining a pure heart. Then all in here shall combine these grey hairs,” he said, his hands toward the other two, “to work on teaching you, son, how to live out that passion. No need to pointlessly dry your skin in the desert with vultures hovering above waiting for your feet to trip on sand,” he said with a feeling of anger in his voice.

“Father, do not stop me, please,” cried out Khalifah.

“I say we give this time,” said Abubakar.

“It’s no doubt that the young man’s heart cries to answer a greater call. A call that may be the path to a destiny the Almighty imprinted on his heart even before he was conceived. So is’t not stopping him to stand in the way of God,” said the priest as he felt the golden cross dangling against his chest. “Where is the honor in not serving He who created all beings? Better yet, where is the shame in dissuading his ways?” he pondered rhetorically.

The Emperor was pacing slowly about the room at a distant from the three almost as to not even hear their pleas. He suddenly stopped, his right arm resting on the other across his belly, a hand clutching his mouth.

“You’re not going anywhere,” he said, words struggling with the hand that is still at his mouth. “Son, this is not only your home, it is the future of your grandsons. This is destiny,” he concluded as he freed his hands to put them behind his back almost in frustration that longed for comfort in a perfect posture.

“Please, leave us,” he said, hastily looking at the two now seated on the sofas. “Allow me to have a private word with my son,” he pleaded before the two stood. The priest bowed and put on his hood. Khalifah, in a nervous mode to face the Emperor solo, watched in envy as the two man walked passed him, each with a well-wishes pat on his shoulder.

“Twenty six years ago, the mood in this room was just as intense and full of sorrow as it is now,” started the Emperor as he walked closer to Khalifah. “The sorrow that captured my heart then as much as it filled this room carried the same motive as yours: desire to fulfill a personal dream that seemed impossible. After my long prayer and meditation session one weekend, I sat where you seat now and wept. The first ever I wept like that. I hated the Almighty for not granting me my dream,” he said as he sat by Khalifah.

“You see,” he continued, the gestures of his hands bedazzling the air to pair the storytelling, “he gave me everything I ever wanted, yet denied my heart everything that could give me a legacy. At that time in this very room whilst soaking my cloak in tears of despair, I realized that that which I wanted the most I desired solely for my narcissistic completion of my achievements – MORE POWER Khalifah,” he screamed in boastful confession before looking down.

“Then in the quite of despair, I heard my heart. Its whisper was that my purpose is to serve others, not my ego. For in serving others I serve myself most as the effort returns by other invaluable means,” he said.

Khalifah’s face seemed attentive although he did not understand why his father was making such confessions besides attempts to convince him to ‘inherit his wealth and power at the peril of my dream,’ he thought.

“My son,” he continued as he held him by the hand, “some day you will understand why it is not only about you that the sun rises each day. The sun has to kiss the faces of other multitudes of people in the world and still care for you whilst at the same time maintaining its shine to be admired. As if that is daunting a task, it has to refuel many life giving mystical energies around us as part of its daily responsibility,” he said.

“Khalifah, it is too much to ask of a young man rebellious such as yourself to be like the sun. But my son, you have to consider yourself in the midst of others that matter too,” he concluded as he stood signaling to Khalifah that his decision is unchanged.

As they walked towards the doors of the now distressed sanctuary Khalifah asked, “Father, would this mighty Kingdom stand as the most powerful, ethical and wealthy today had you not followed your heart? Had you not risked everything you ever knew and loved to coup a rotten ruler?” his words struck the old Emperor such that he halted.

Turning to look at Khalifah, he witnessed what he had never seen in long time of his strong prince, a solitary tear speeding down a fresh cheek. The Emperor caught the tear with his thumb before rudely finding words to repeat himself: “You’re not going anywhere.” He shut the doors before Khalifah, then walked back to face his maze one more time – something unusual for him as he normally breaks his meditations by midday.

Khalifah walked into the scorching sun that immediately kissed dry his tears. Through the guest room window that he now found himself in, he saw Abubakar feeding the birds in the garden. He had doubts about joining him to report the news for fear the birds may hear and fly them to the rest of the city.

“That is not a joyful look son. What has transpired of my favorite prince and my old friend Askia?” he asked almost sarcastically to dispel the sorrow on Khalifah’s face.

“Like the sun, I believe I serve others. I can be of even better service to them when my dream is realized,” he said as he picked some of the grain Abubakar had placed by a small statue. “And pursuing my dream to seek the joy of my heart is not narcissistic. It is answering to my destiny, is’t not?” he wondered to Abubakar as he emptied a handful of grain into the air.

“So you finally heard the tale of the sun and its duties in the universe. That is good. That fable is rare to come by,” Abubakar said ignoring the pompous question. “But it is not good either that your father wants to deny your heart its true joy. Such can only break you, Khalifah,” he said as he clapped his hands to dust off the grain excess in his hands.

“However, he is not only your father, but also the most powerful Emperor in Africa. So you have your wishes going up against a force to reckon with. Give him time. He respects people with dreams of following their hearts. He needs time. And son, like I said, your announcement rudely caught my mind in slumber. I cannot imagine your father having prepared for this either,” said Abubakar as they walked together toward the house after realizing that it was time for lunch.
There was something strange about the morning. The sun in Timbuktu seemed to have risen later than usual to bathe the sprawling sand dunes and great mosques with its glory. ‘Also,’ the spell in the Emperor’s worrisome mind fumbled, ‘the brightest sun in the world, the sun of the Timbuktu firmament, was today dimly lit than any other day. It lacks the spark that made the desert a wonder to wake in,’ the nagging thought went.

The Emperor, as he walked wondrously in the garden amongst hungry birds, said to himself, “aargh, another of the hallucinations since last night.” He stood to admire the birds as they picked on the ground what he could not see. ‘Like I thought, there’s nothing, the sun of Timbuktu is ever shining and never a minute late. The brightest in the world,’ he thought in an attempt to convince himself that it was just his mind playing magic on him.

The raging thoughts and troubled hallucinations started last night since the unimagined news from Khalifah. In fact, the Emperor never slept and in the mid of the night, he walked the same garden and sat by a statue to ponder on the news as he stared at the stars. Before returning to the house he had uttered a few words at the brightly lit moon. And he was convinced it could hear him. In the house, he went into the library to visit his Bahija for a few hours and his heavy eyes eventually forced him into slumber in the same room on the low lying sofas.


After marching in the garden for what seemed like eternity, he joined the house for breakfast with three Queens and a few of his daughters. Khalifah, who is always present at all meals, was not at breakfast. The Emperor did not bother to torture his mind over what may have come of him for all was bare. Albeit ironic relieve, he automatically excused him and sort to not ask after him.

After breaking morning bread and all were dispersing following laughs amidst the unusual silence and tension in the Emperor’s brief remarks, everyone rose almost in unison to race with the sun.

“Shipa,” called out the Emperor. “Remain with me.”

Once all had exited the grand royal banqueting room, Shipa looked intensely at his father waiting for his first words.

“I could assign this task to anyone of your mothers or some of your sisters,” started the Emperor as he drew a chair signaling Shipa to rise from her distant chair and get closer to him.

Father and daughter spent the next hour and half in the banqueting room talking about only one thing and both so in distress. Every so often one of them would have their looking face down, another looking up the crafted ceiling, fingers rhythmically dancing on the Egyptian rich mahogany table in nervousness of what confronted them.

“Ok father, I understand. Although my heart is riddled with fear of what has to happen from this moment forth, I shall be strong when I send this news,” she said with anguish in her once sweet voice. “I pray he’ll be able to make peace with these.”

“It’ll never happen whilst I’m in this city. It cannot. Enough grief has been resuscitated already and I’ll not witness it multiply,” said the Emperor as he stood to pull his daughter’s chair out.

The Emperor wrapped his left arm around the princess’ shoulders as they started toward the main house with a sigh of relief at leaving behind the anguish that confronted them in the banqueting room.


For the first time in a quarter of the century, the palace, which always sparkled with an orchestra of fire light, seemed dim. The darkness of that night blanketed even the rich array of royal lights. The sand dunes from a distance seemed to be howling along with the wind in a unique, but disturbing tune. Although it was not raining nor was there any other sign it would, the firmament tormented the desert tearing silence with thunder. It was as if the hearsay rain queen was somewhere engaged in fruitless attempts.

“Aah, a very strange night it is. Not a typical desert night. Interesting…,” mumbled Khalifah to himself as he let go off the curtain he had picked through.

“I suppose conference with father made you delusional, what with the prince speaking to himself,” said a sweet voice that interrupted Khalifah’s loud thoughts.

“It could not wait?” asked Khalifah.

“Just keeping on with your style brother, although this is the only urgency I am not proud of,” cried a soft voice.

“Shipa, any urgency I know of I learnt from you. Otherwise you would beat me to everything,” he said.

The two chuckled almost wary to not wake the night like the thunderous sky. Shipa drew open curtains in the banqueting room to reveal the loneliest night yet in Timbuktu.

“Is’t my eyes or are the stars dim tonight? Less sparkle in the light? The air colder than should be for the season?” she asked as she lounged on the sofa across Khalifah.

“I’d not say you are wrong. This strikes me too as a strange night. It is the night that resonates the darkness that my heart has now found. The loneliness that started to haunt me since this time last night,” he said taking many pauses in between the cold words.

“Khalifah, it’s just a different night. Not a strange one. It has signs of an eve of a dawning era of light. Of joy. It’s one that asks, are you sure about this?”

“About what? My future yesterday was painted dark and horrid like the very night that unsettles the desert tonight.”

“Father says he cannot stand between a man and his heart’s deepest desires,” she started as she crawled across the divide between their seats to reach for Khalifah’s right hand, tightly enveloping it in hers. “Brother, the wish of your heart has been granted. The gods and the Almighty have convinced father of your cause,” she said with a smile which battled with tears.

Khalifah shut his eyes before raising his joy-filled face toward the ceiling. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” he sang.

His face was now watered with tears of joy. Shipa could not hold her back either as they both expressed their joy. Albeit they were also visited by emotions of loss, loneliness and the unknown. Shipa was hit the most by such feelings with the somber night aggravating the mood. But she knew she had to be happy for her brother, who seemed lost for words other than repetitive silent whispers of thank yous.

Once Khalifah had partially recovered from his celebratory paralysis, Shipa continued as she looked down on the carpeted floor, “He asks one thing of you in return: leave in his absence.”

The last words seemed to tear apart Khalifah’s moment of glory.

“The last words we spoke to each other were not peaceful. They were confrontational,” he started. “I have to see him. I cannot leave without conferring with him. Where are blessings of my departure in that,” he asked.

“Brother, do not look at it that way. Father loves you and he always will. You rescued his heart from sorrow and for that he is indebted. He says he cannot face the most important part of his life, his very legacy, walk away while he humbly stands,” she said.

“No, no. Not this way,” said Khalifah as he stood, unbelievably shaking his head.

“You must understand that this has given him pain. Even more, he still has to face the city and disclose that they no longer have a prince to call their heir. That’s difficult Khalifah,” she said.

Although still in a state of disbelief, Khalifah found the courage to indicate his understanding. He nodded.

“He says you must keep this with you. Guard it with your life and accept it as his honour for the joy that you brought to his heart,” Shipa pressed a cold object in Khalifah’s hand.

She then promised to prepare the whole family for the news before Khalifah sat with them. They agreed Khalifah would visit the individual families under each queen to fare them well. They both seemed to feel very awkward about attending to the details of something of this nature. For the first time they realized it was taking a toll on their emotions. Purposely or not, they were oblivious to the reality of what was in their midst and what followed.

“Oh Khalifah, this is not going to be easy. Not at all,” cried out Shipa as she wrapped herself around him. “You have to be strong and you must not doubt your decision and desire. It’s meant to be,” she said.

“Now that the doors to the lone isolated lands are open wide, my mind is dangling on a thin string of determination. That I must run toward those fears and allow my heart to find its true bliss, but the doubt is now trying to eat away at that thin determination,” he said as he lifted a jug of water from a small table by the window. The lightning was sparking the room incoherently, creating a silhouette of him by the window. He filled two cups.

“Khalifah, remember when we were about six and were warned to not go into dark rooms at night? Remember? You never dared until you were eight. And it was only when darkness came alive such as tonight that you ventured into this banqueting room to fetch us fresh grapes,” she reminded him. “You were trembling with fear that night like I had never seen before, but you walked into that darkness and came out with…,”

She was interrupted by a break of chuckle from Khalifah who spat a shower.

“…yes. I know. I came out with only one grape from the bundle after speeding out from the sound of thunder and blinding lightening that came through the windows,” he said as they both laughed. It was almost as if they were remedying the sorrow that had started to capture them. The sadness brought on by the looming reality.

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1 comment:

jali said...


I just enjoyed the slideshow of your family and some of the country. Beautiful photos!

I'll be back to read this epic when I get a little time.

I didn't realize that your are in south Africa. Hugs to my brother!!!