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A Muslim Suicide

Bensalem Himmich, translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen

Publication Year: 2011

Award-winning novelist Bensalem Himmich’s third novel to be translated into English is a vertiginous exploration of one of Islam’s most radical thinkers, the Sufi philosopher Ibn Sab’in. Born in Spain, he was forced to immigrate to Africa because of his controversial views. Later expelled from Egypt, Ibn Sab’in made his way to Mecca, where he spent his final years. Himmich follows the philosopher’s journey, outlining an array of characters he meets along the way who usher in debates of identity and personal responsibility through their interactions and relationships with Ibn Sab’in. Set against the backdrop of a politically charged thirteenth–century Islamic world, Himmich’s novel is a rich blend of fact and imagination that re–creates the intellectual debates of the time. As the culture of prosperity and tradition was giving way to the chaos created by political and social instability, many Arabs, as Ibn Sab’in does in the novel, turned inward toward a spiritual search for meaning. In his fictional portrait of Ibn Sab’in, Himmich succeeds in creating a character, with his many virtues and flaws, to whom all readers can relate.

Published by: Syracuse University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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Part One: The Search for the Missing Manuscript

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pp. 1-89

Woe is me! Woe is me for what I have lost, leaving a huge void inside me. I have been asked to explain the nature of this loss by a voice that I’ve grown used to hearing in my dreams...

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1

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pp. 7-15

To be the living, breathing person, someone scored by despair and grief, the memory alive to a loss that lingers like a sharp knife under the skin, and yet at the same time to go out into the world fabricating a radiant Buddha’s smile and all the symptoms...

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2

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pp. 16-19

Once I had finally despaired of ever recovering my missing manuscript, along with its unique basic content and its initial luminous framework, I decided that the best plan was to forget about it; that and nothing else. In other words, my plan was to become more involved...

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3

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pp. 20-24

In the countryside northwest of Murcia there’s a village on the side of a valley with verdant pastures, orchards, and abundant water. As has been noted earlier, it’s called Raquta. A rider can get there in a few hours. It’s there that I was born in the month...

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4

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pp. 25-30

Sara, Rachel’s elder sister, is one of the women around whom my doubts concerning my missing manuscript revolve. I have my reasons for believing that, although they are both nebulous and complex...

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5

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pp. 31-36

“Don’t forget the polytheists among them!” she had said. I only got to know one of them; her name was Balqis. I lost track of her as well just before the manuscript went missing. Her house was on the southern outskirts of Murcia and was full of...

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6

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pp. 37-42

Salman! Salman was by origin a Visigoth, but he converted to Islam and learned Arabic. He married a Muslim woman, then lost her, leaving him childless. Thereafter he chose a life of asceticism and self-denial and entered my own...

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7

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pp. 43-49

On Thursday morning I woke up early. My tongue still felt damp from a question that I had been asking myself while asleep: could Juanita, the Christian girl, possibly be the thief...

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8

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pp. 50-60

Once again I’m lost, heading in the wrong direction. Despair, despair! What I need to do now is to turn the page and stop looking. From today onward, no more desperate...

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9

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pp. 61-65

Should I say that, where my devotion to the quest for the very heights is involved, I entertain some peculiar, indeed twisted ideas? In my peers’ opinion, it all comes down to a matter of courage. As the great Sufi writer al-Niffari* puts it, “In taking risks...

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10

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pp. 66-72

To allow myself time to think, I decided to take a stroll. I walked along the banks of the River Segura, which was uncharacteristically full at the time, then made my way to the park, which was still in flower even though it had been sadly neglected for some...

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11

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pp. 73-78

So it came about that at noon on the first day of the month Rabi‘ al-Akhir I asked Salman to collect all my books and papers and put them in a box. I did not tell him I was intending to depart so as not to alarm him. I told him that I was leaving him...

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12

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pp. 79-84

On my way to Murcia, I thought about the people I was being forced to leave behind: my sister, teary-eyed at my departure; Maymuna, still asleep and clutching some of my hair and clothing; and Raquta, with all its sights, smells, and people. Today, all those...

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13

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pp. 85-89

Farewell then, River Segura, you who have always spread brilliant verdant foliage on your banks! Farewell, plants and crops growing in rich and plentiful gardens and...

Part Two: Sabta, Haven of My Love and Monotheism

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pp. 91-254

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1

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pp. 93-99

“Sabta, with its seven hills, will become the base from which I will be operating, my line of defense, and my refuge. It is there that I intend to investigate the state of affairs and appropriate spiritual postures and to engage with the foundations of...

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2

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pp. 100-110

Six months have now passed with no news from my students. Perhaps our last session together made them feel that, since I was now in retreat, their visits were somehow bothering me and I preferred to do without them. Then again, maybe the...

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3

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pp. 111-118

In my current quarters time passed pleasantly; the days were full of positives rather than negatives, of ups rather than downs. Even the birds, it seemed, headed our way in quest of their own share of their particular qualities and features. I used to go into...

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4

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pp. 119-125

Next morning I was eating breakfast and arranging papers and pens with a view to working on some pages of my letters when I heard a gentle tap on the door. Th e warden told me that he was sorry to disturb me but it was something important. I opened...

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5

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pp. 126-133

Next day I woke up full of energy, although my mind was still moistened by a dream whose particulars had dissipated, leaving behind some vague and contradictory shards. I performed my ablutions and prayed, then put on my clothes and some scent. I was planning to go down into the city...

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6

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pp. 134-142

So here I was back in my room and breathing normally. I washed myself and performed the ritual ablutions, put on some wool clothing, took a potion and some hot liquids, then prayed before going...

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7

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pp. 143-156

Back in my room I did some routine chores and recorded all the things I had seen and heard during my investigations that day. I read some pages from the anthology of Arabic love-poetry and ate a good deal of my beloved’s food...

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8

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pp. 157-163

So now I’ve made up my mind. When both this devout man and the shaykh from Meknes share the same opinion, it cannot be wrong. I’m waiting for you, Fayha’. So give me a sign, and I’ll obey. Issue your...

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9

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pp. 164-170

I was jolted out of my reverie by a gentle tap on my door, followed by a soft neigh. Opening the door I found myself face to face with my horse, almost as though he had come to inquire about my health and check up on me. I held his head close and nuzzled him, whispering...

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10

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pp. 171-176

So now here I am living with my bride under a single roof, like butter and honey. We have been spending many wonderful hours in each other’s company, chatting and sharing the sweet delights of married life. As a way of adjusting to life in my new home with...

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11

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pp. 177-182

Back at the house, the only person I found there was ‘Abla, the servant-girl. She took my gear from me and accompanied me to my prayer-cell. Without paying any attention to my annoyance at this situation, she asked my permission to wash and massage...

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12

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pp. 183-187

I now made a huge effort to concentrate on the most valuable portions of the learning of the ancients, but it was all in vain. My mind was completely disoriented, and I found it impossible to focus on the texts, whether generalities or particulars. My entire consciousness...

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13

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pp. 188-194

From the fourth year of my stay in Sabta onward, events and news about them started to speed up. Th e governor of Sabta, Ibn Khalas, wrote to me that Frederic, the Christian king, had liked my responses to his questions and sent another valuable...

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14

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pp. 195-199

Following the noon prayer on Monday I headed for my rendezvous and found a huge crowd awaiting my arrival. My quartet of closest confidants welcomed me and sat me down on a small pulpit. I had no idea what to focus on during the lesson...

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15

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pp. 200-207

My sleep patterns that night were much disturbed, and I spent several hours wide awake or else dozing off for a while. Whichever of the two states I was in, I kept on dreaming of spoken confrontations with different faces: Khalid and ‘Abla, King Frederic...

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16

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pp. 208-219

When I returned home at night, I found my wife waiting for me. I asked her how her aunt was. “She’s not at all well, ‘Abduh,” she told me with a heavy sigh. “I’ve brought her here so I can take proper care of her and be near...

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17

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pp. 220-227

Next day I stayed in my closet, concentrating on reading books and posing myself questions in the hope of doing some more editing of my book, Escape of the Gnostic. I also had to write some letters, the contents of which I had been carrying around in my head...

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18

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pp. 228-231

All the way back to my house my mind was churning with clashing sensations: had I followed the right tack in my conversation with Ibn Khalas, or had I strayed too far off course? Had I showed sufficient caution in my assessment of the situation or had I unknowingly...

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19

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pp. 232-239

As Ramadan began, I confided in my wife that I intended to spend most of the blessed month in my retreat on Jabal Musa. She acceded to my wishes, pointing out, as she put it, that she wanted me to feel happy and serene. Next day at dawn my baggage...

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20

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pp. 240-251

Now that I had returned to my own home with my wife and had celebrated the Great Feast according to custom and tradition, events started to pile up and conditions grew steadily more difficult. Th e jurists of the town intensified their hue and cry against...

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21

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pp. 252-254

When I got home, I found that things were relatively quiet. I looked in on Bilal and found him contentedly receiving the ministrations of the two servant-women. I went to my closet to clean myself up and perform the necessary prayers. When that was done, I decided the...

Part Three: Death in Mecca

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1

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pp. 257-262

On the outskirts of Badis, a village of scattered houses and grassy expanses, I slowed my horse so it could recover its breath and relax a bit. Th e pilgrims were making ready to spend the night in a wide, desolate valley. I sat on a tree trunk watching the sunset and contemplating...

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2

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pp. 263-269

I arrived in Bijaya in the evening and went looking for a hotel; I found one without difficulty. Aft er the first night, I decided that I would extend my stay in this city; it felt as though I was tied to it in some way. Aft er breakfast I made myself known to the warden...

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3

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pp. 270-275

Next morning I awoke to the cock’s crow and the muezzin’s call. I got up, did my ablutions, and prayed. There was no sign of my host inside the house. I sat there, thinking about a number of things, prime among them being the issue of my wife, whom...

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4

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pp. 276-287

Next morning I was awoken by the sun’s rays shining on me, showing that it had to be almost midday. My host’s notebooks were scattered all over the bedcovers and my own face; it may well have been their magic that managed to imbue me with a kind of figurative...

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5

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pp. 288-293

Next day at noon I met the students who had come the day before, and there were some additional ones as well. There was no sign of Abu al-Hasan either inside the house or among their number. I presumed that he had gone to do his own work and continue...

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6

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pp. 294-299

Once I got back to my abode, I spent some time thinking about the need to continue my journey and prepare my belongings. I was not willing to leave Bijaya under compulsion, nor did I wish to upset my distinguished host. However, Tunis was my...

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7

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pp. 300-303

I spent the entire voyage tossing and turning, half awake and half asleep; night or day, calm or stormy seas, noisy passengers or complete silence—none of it made any difference. In my mind images and visions were all clashing against one another; all that remained...

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8

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pp. 304-316

During the trip to Alexandria I paid close attention to my surroundings; the calm seas and the sight of the wind-filled sails augured well. I made a point of spending time with my new horse so it could get to know me better. I also spent some time conversing...

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9

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pp. 317-324

The journey started on the road from Minya to Bush Fadlas, where we had to stop for two days in order to buy fine-quality cotton very cheaply. From there we moved on to Minya ibn Khusayn, Manfalut, and Asyut, from where we crossed over to Akhmim...

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10

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pp. 325-341

During the first six months of the following year I divided my time between visits to the sacred enclosure of the Ka‘ba and the library of the Maliki residence and familiarizing myself with the buildings and monuments of Mecca and the surrounding desert...

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11

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pp. 342-354

A wonderful day to be recorded in letters of gold: the tenth day of Dhu al- Qa‘da in the year 660 AH [1262 CE]. In the evening the warden Yasir came up to my room and told me to accompany him at once; my eyes would be delighted by what he had to show me...

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12

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pp. 355-361

I now spent three whole months living on tenterhooks, all the while recalling my own share of this lower world and displaying my fervent love for it. A little while later Abu Numa was able to give me the glad news that his envoy had been successful with...

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13

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pp. 362-375

Five months later Yasir came out from Mecca to inform me of something that was almost inevitable: Abu Numa and my disciples were insisting that I come back. What is more, Sitt Umama had returned to the city and kept asking for me. Yasir asked me if I would in fact come...

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14

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pp. 376-381

When we drew close to Mecca, Yasir took over and led my wife and myself by a quiet and uncrowded back way into the city, leading to our residence. He then turned his attention to unloading the animals and transferring our baggage. I was very glad to be back...

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15

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pp. 382-388

When Sitt Umama left, I spent the entire time till the end of Sha‘ban secluded in my residence, performing various rituals and devotions, looking out for early signs of danger, and surrendering to a variety of daydreams and nightmares. Some of the memories were packed...

Appendix - What Some Writers Have Said about Ibn Sab‘in

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pp. 389-390

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Translator’s Afterword

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pp. 391-399

This marks the third time that I have embarked upon the difficult task of translating into English a novel by the Moroccan writer Bensalem Himmich, currently the minister of culture in Morocco (2009). The first two novels were both prizewinners in their...

Glossary

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pp. 401-414


E-ISBN-13: 9780815650522
E-ISBN-10: 0815650523
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815609667
Print-ISBN-10: 0815609663

Page Count: 424
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas

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Subject Headings

  • Biographical fiction. -- gsafd.
  • Historical fiction. -- gsafd.
  • Islamic Empire -- History -- 1258-1517 -- Fiction.
  • Musilm pilgrims and pilgrimages -- Fiction.
  • Ibn Sabʻīn, ʻAbd al-Ḥaqq ibn Ibrāhīm, 1216 or 17-1270 -- Fiction.
  • Sufis -- Spain -- Murcia -- Fiction.
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