The Story of the People’s Tree ~ “Shapeshifters’ Encounter” ~


A soft breeze caresses the trees along the Darro River in Granada, southern Spain. The faint jingling of autumn leaves lulls one’s ears with the delightful shimmy of belly dancer poplars shaking their vegetal coin-belts. Tamarisks smile as they sway to the rhythm of their breeze-loving neighbors, and a fig tree converses with a lone walnut. At the walnut’s feet two cats are asleep; they purr and dream sultanas’ dreams in their afternoon nap. No human being is to be seen. Life is only embodied by the four elements, nature and animals, in what feels like a bubble frozen in a parallel time-space. All is quiet by the oldest bathhouse in town, the one Spaniards call El Bañuelo, although its original Arabic name is Hammam al Jawza. As we speak, an extraordinary encounter is taking place inside the thick walls of the edifice.

At the center of the warm room is his majesty Badis ben (or Ibn) Habus, Berber King of the 11thcentury Zirid Dynasty. He is sitting in his jamuga, a hip-joint seat made of leather and beautifully inlaid wood.

# jamuga fil hammam

He is the one who ordered his trusted Jewish vizier, Samuel ibn Nagrella, to build the bathhouse in front of a fortification bridge called “Puente del Cadí” by the inhabitants of 21st-century Granada. In Zirid times, this bridge was known as Bab al Difaf, the “lock gate”, because of the iron-grid curtain under the bridge, which enabled water to flow through the interstices while preventing any attempt of invasion. In the 21st century, only one of the partly ruined Albarrana or defensive towers still stands by the Darro River. However, in this time-space bubble where a white spider inhabited by the spirit of Emperor Charlemagne has just landed, the fortification bridge looks exactly as it did when King Badis ruled over his “taifa” kingdom.

# bab al difaf

-How do you know me? And how did you know IT WAS ME in a spider disguise? telepathically asks the spider to the King who has just invited the arachnid Emperor to play chess with him.

-Well, I observed you in your soul’s travels, since I am as dead as you are, Shah Riman, so by now you should “know how”, chuckles Badis. Or haven’t you learned how to time/space travel exactly where your interests reside?

-Well, I guess I have, acknowledges Charlemagne in his spider body, but I do not recall meeting you in the dead’s realm until now…

-Correct, smiles Badis. I’m very good at hiding… You are here though, and I am grateful for this very long-awaited visit of yours. But if you have not come here consciously, let’s see what or who brought you to me. Do you remember anything striking before landing on my table?

-Now that you mention it, starts Charlemagne, I was having a conversation with a magical white deer, and when the buck mentioned the name of a star I had never heard of, POOF! Here I landed.

-Could you repeat the name of that star? inquires the King.

-Let’s see, thinks Charlemagne. It started with a ‘Ya’ and then a ‘Ja’. I think you pronounced it a while ago actually!

-Very good, you’re open to learning new things. Even in Arabic! As I said earlier, proceeds Badis, the name of this place is Hammam al Jawza, and Yad al Jawza is the heavenly body mentioned both by the buck and I… My friend the walnut tree outside this bathhouse boasts about being the sole inspiration for this name, but the truth is, Jawza is also related to a constellation… The particular star we call Yad al Jawza, “the hand of the walnut”… appears to be blinking for the people of the 21st century. Not too many “new-comers” among Arabic speakers still refer to that star and its constellation under those names. So consider yourself honored to be allowed to learn the name me and my people gave to “Jawza”, and its blinking star, the hand, Yad al Jawza, which holds up the constellation!  A misreading of one of our manuscripts led some Christian scribes to call the ‘nut’s hand’ Betelgeuse, one of the pillars of Orion…

-Oh! Now I get it! exclaims Charlemagne as he remembers his previous conversation with the magical white buck who came from above. “The deer is the hunter, the hunter is the deer…” Well, I guess different cultures see different things in the sky and name them accordingly.

-Heehee, chuckles King Badis. Correct again! I am glad you came to this conclusion. My people gave a HUGE importance to heavenly bodies. Why do you think you landed here through a star in the ceiling???

# colonne et étoile rub el hizb

-Oh, speaking of which, says Charlemagne, it is EXACTLY shaped like the stars I chose to ornate my palace in Aachen. I was fascinated by them.

# estrella de lakshmi

-I guess you were inspired by the style of some of the gifts you received from Harun al Rashid…

-Oh you know that as well, smiles Charlemagne. I am starting to wonder if there is anything about me you ignore… I was very impressed by all his gifts, to say the least. And yes, he sent me a chessboard and beautiful pieces like the ones you have here, says the Emperor as he admires the prized possession of King Badis.

The splendid marquetry chessboard is the joy and pride of the Berber man. Together with the ancient ivory figures, several pomegranates are arranged on this masterpiece decorated with exquisite inlays of wood, shell, bone and ivory. On the board’s side, strange-looking letters are carved, and Charlemagne’s attention is caught by one that looks a bit like a spider with half of its legs left. That symbol is also drawn everywhere on the pieces of furniture in the bathhouse.

-What does this symbol mean? the Emperor asks his host, moving his arachnid body close to what intrigues him.

-Aaah… answers the King in a solemn tone. This symbol represents our letter “Z”, as in “Zirid”. But we also see a free man in its design, and I would add that it could also be “Z” as in Ziryab, the legendary blackbird, although he was not a Berber man originally…

# abul abbas & chess

-A bird… I understand, lies Charlemagne. Speaking of animals, this first piece here reminds me so much of my favorite pet!

-I’m sure it does, chuckles the Berber man. I wouldn’t be surprised if our blackbird actually had something to do with that elephant of yours…

-What do you mean, wonders Charlemagne?

-Before coming here to Al-Ándalus, Ziryab had become very influential in the Court of Caliph Harun in Baghdad. It is actually why he was forced to come here, because of the jealousy of Ziryab’s former master. Although all this might as well be pure “tberguig”, gossip… You never know.

-Oh so you mean maybe that black bird suggested what kind of presents the Caliph of Baghdad should send me?

-Well, I am not completely sure, but it would not surprise me. Our blackbird could be a bit mischievous, and it would be “SO HIM” to have played around symbols here. Neither Ziryab nor Harun did things “just because”… Everything had a purpose and a meaning, many layers of meaning, I would add… You see, “modern people” call this chess piece a “bishop”, but in this time and space, let’s still take a break from those guys! Well, no offence, Mister “Champion of Christianity!” A chess “bishop” for us is “alfil”, which means elephant in Arabic!

-Oooh! reacts Charlemagne. So my Abul-Abbas was not only an impressive four-legged friend but also a giant “mirror” of this particular chess piece! Maybe Harun and Ziryab wanted me to pay attention to its occult meaning?

-You got it, says Badis. I am not sure you will love all the “occult” meanings of the alfil, but before we proceed, I want to make sure you don’t mind I pronounce your name the way I do: Shah Riman. I like how that sounds: like the “fruit” of the union between Old Persian and Hebrew, the language of my dear and so wonderfully wise vizier…

-Is that so? asks Charlemagne-the-spider whose thirst for knowledge is infinite.

-Yes! beams King Badis. “Shah Riman” is like the addition of “shah”, Persian for “king”, and “riman”, which kind of sounds like “pomegranate” in Hebrew, whose plural form, “rimonim”, represents the adornments atop Torah scrolls. Furthermore, pomegranates are the symbol of this gem of a town, my beloved Gharnata.

# rub el hizb granaíno

We have just been blessed by an abundant pomegranate harvest, which is why I have brought some samples for you to taste. I didn’t expect you to show up as a spider though. Can spiders taste men’s fruits?

-“À la Saint Denis, ramasse les fruits…“ recites Charlemagne.

-I beg your pardon?

-Oh forgive me, it came out naturally. This is an old saying related to the Patron Saint of Paris: Saint Dennis. It means something like “On Saint Dennis’ Feast Day, let’s take the fruit away…” There is also another one I like: “À la Saint Denis, le Laboureur se réjouit” (“On Saint Dennis’ Feast Day, the plowman shouts ‘hooray’!”…) Several members of my family are buried in Saint Dennis temple. He is invoked to protect the crops and is a promise of good harvests.

-Just like Sukkot… whispers Badis.

-Saint Dennis Feast Day is “right now” at the beginning of October, although I am not too sure what “right now” means anymore due to my astral flights back and forth on the spiral of time, recognizes Charlemagne…

-Oh don’t worry, you’re “in the right place at the right time”! And what a wonderful synchronicity, since “right now” is also when we have just celebrated Rosh-ha-Shan… Oops, I mean, your story of a Patron Saint who blesses October’s crops fits my pomegranate world. Do you mind if I, your humble Muslim servant, affectionately call you the Pomegranate King?

-Why not, chuckles the Emperor, if you accept to be called the Fish King

-Fish King? That’s… surprising. I don’t really understand why though, answers Badis, intrigued.

-Here’s why, answers Charlemagne. There is a cute little fish from the Brahmaputra River, in India, called the “Scarlet Gem Badis”. I know because of Isaac the Jew, and I remembered his anecdote when you used Hebrew to explain the hybrid name you chose for me…

-Who’s that Isaac? asks Badis-the-Fish-King who is having a hard time pretending to be neutral after hearing the mention of a Jew in Charlemagne’s universe.

-Isaac was an amazing Frankish Jew I knew and trusted. He was part of the embassy that went to Baghdad on my behalf to greet Caliph Harun al-Rashid and accept his royal gifts for me. Sadly, Isaac was the only survivor of the “pet” expedition. The two other emissaries, Lantfrid and Sigimund, perished in the endeavor. But Isaac was determined and courageous enough to keep his word and bring me back the most incredible “living” gift I ever received. My Indian white elephant, my beautiful Abul Abbas… Quite an expensive pet if I may add!!! Isaac spent a lot of time with the Indian caretaker of Abul Abbas, in order to learn all the requirements to take the best possible care of my elephant. I think that man’s profession is called “mahout”. Apart from willing to learn about the likes and dislikes of Aboo (that’s how we called my elephant for short), Isaac wanted to know it all about Indian lore. He was a bit of a “nerd”, like 21st century people would call him! He generously shared some of his knowledge with me after his 5-year journey. Apparently Aboo’s mahout had one such “badis” fish in a bowl, a fish he had caught at the mouth of the Brahmaputra River, where it merges with the Ganges, named “Lotus River” at that point of the river’s journey.

-I am liking your story so far, interrupts Badis, and as I listen under the magnificent star-lit ceiling of this hammam, it reminds me of several names for stars that are related to rivers and water… Acamar / Akhiru-n-Nahr, “the River’s End”, Asuja / Ash-shuja, “the Sea Serpent”, Fom-al-Hut, “the FISH’s Mouth”, and of course the whole “sea in the sky” that Christians call “Aquarius”, our beloved “Water Bucket” surrounded by its lucky stars! I will tell you a secret very few people know: we called this new country of ours Al-Ándalus to pay a tribute to its bountiful waters. We baptized the land Al-Daluh like “Water Bucket”, the equivalent of your Christian Aquarius constellation. Almost everybody forgot about it though… Aaaaah, I so love this language… But please proceed…

-Wow, thank you for sharing this secret with me! I wonder how Indian men call Aquarius… But back to the Lotus River aka Ganges, Isaac had drawn a lotus flower in his traveler’s book to show me what it looked like. So gorgeous! And the story of the fish is actually funny. The mahout found young Aboo when the elephant was taking a bath where the Brahmaputra and the Lotus River meet. The man decided the animal was the one he would take back with him to Baghdad.

-Quite a traveler, your Aboo! A pure Gypsy…

-Maybe… So as Aboo drank after his bath, he sneezed before swallowing; in the puddle he left on the river edge, a little badis fish was fidgeting for its life! The mahout knew this was a blessing, so he thanked his Gods, collected some of the water in a pouch and kept the fish in there, and both Aboo and him made it back home. Once in Baghdad, the fish stayed with them for several years, contemplating life from its bowl, and blessing the mahout with its magical presence. The man revered his fish as the most precious gift he ever received.

-Had that Mahout been a King, we might have called him a “Fisher King”, hahahaha! realizes Badis.

-Right! agrees Charlemagne. Like the kings in Arthur Pendragon’s world. For some reason, my family knew many stories about those ancient kings. Sometimes we called the Merovingians ‘Fisher Kings’ too…

-I know, says Badis.

-But of course, smiles Charlemagne.

-This “fish and kings” story makes me feel eager to fully accept and embrace the nickname you chose for me, my dear Pomegranate King, teases King Badis.

-You should be proud indeed, my dear Fish King! Charlemagne teases back.

-And YOU must be proud of your new name as well, because both in Islam and Judaism, pomegranates are considered Paradise fruit… I don’t know if Isaac told you that, adds Badis.

-I don’t think so, says Charlemagne. There were so many things we ignored back in my Frankish world, he sighs.

-Well at least in your Frankish Empire you created another vision of Paradise, because in my world, the star you so loved is called “Rub el Hizb”, literally “the fourth realm”, an actual representation of the Paradise and its gardens (and four rivers) described in the Qur’an, our Sacred Book. In this case the eight points of the star represent the eight mountains that surround our Heaven, and we also use the Rub el Hizb to separate each section of the Qur’an. This star was already present in this land before Muslims settled here, and it was one of the most important symbols used by King Solomon. Isaac must have known that too. Many times, a point is added in the star’s center, to symbolize 8+1…

-Oh my God! Just like the Saxon symbolism of the nine realms! exclaims the Emperor, remembering what he learned from the elf who explained part of the meaning of the tree of life Charlemagne destroyed in its Irminsul version.

King Badis perceives his new friend’s anguish and tries to bring him back to his beautiful confession of his actual love for other people’s cultures.

-This is wonderful how you are remembering so much of what you were taught, he encourages him. I’m sure Isaac knew your love of learning, and that’s why he asked so many details from the Mahout, because he wanted you to know them as well. What other wonders did he tell you?

-Well, proceeds Charlemagne, he also shared with me other astonishing beliefs of the mahout. For example, the name of the river, Brahmaputra, means “Son of the Creator”. The man explained that’s why the fish he caught where two sacred rivers meet carried Divine energy. The Brahmaputra is said to flow from a place where a mountain wears a crown, like a queen, and that the ‘queen’ was actually like a huge tree that holds up the world and makes a connection between Heaven and Earth… I did not quite understand that, but I thought it was beautiful anyway. And then of course it made me feel bad again because of the Irminsul tree. But recently I have agreed with my friends the elf, the 4D deer and Blue Spruce Woman that I have to move on already.

-Wise decision, agrees the Berber king.

-Yes. Anyway. Isaac added that the Brahmaputra comes from a very cold lake that the locals call the Pool of Consciousness, which actually looks like the head of a drinking elephant! The other lake looks like a whale diving deep to touch the elephant’s trunk.

# elephant head and diving whale lakes

The weird thing is that the night after Isaac explained all that, I dreamed I was a woman touched by a white elephant that looked just like Abul Abbas. My woman-self bathed in the “elephant lake” before giving birth to a lotus baby that started to grow and shine under a tree. Strange, isn’t it?

-Or not, Shah Riman, or not… answers Badis as if talking to himself.

-Isaac also said that pilgrims come back from those two lakes and their Queen Mountain utterly transformed… If I remember correctly the pilgrims have to walk around the mountain to complete their ceremony…

-Amazingly beautiful! It’s like what we, Muslims, do when we take the Hadj journey, our pilgrimage to Mecca. We have to walk around the Kaaba seven times. I guess going around that mountain is done only once though, because it must take long!! The mountain must be huge like a whale or an elephant, haha!

-Haha! You’re funny. I guess you’re right, says Charlemagne. You know what, I feel so much better since I’m here sharing those things with you. Thank you.

-My pleasure. And I must admit, dear Emperor, adds Badis, that I would never have expected you to be so open-minded regarding other’s beliefs.

-Ah, yes… Well, that’s now though… I guess more than a thousand years pondering past actions have taught me a thing or two, chuckles Charlemagne. After I “retired” from all that fighting-fighting-fighting frenzy, I really did become passionate about discovering our wide world wonders.

-Our Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be upon Him, had a saying: “Look for knowledge as far as China!” So you are not too far with an elephant related to a sacred ceremony from India that came to you through Baghdad!

-I like how you put things, smiles Charlemagne. And I finally understand that it is ok for men to have their own, personal ways of interpreting the Divine, like the shape of those sacred lakes. Because I believe the whale and elephant were the personal interpretations of Aboo’s caretaker. In fact, traditional people over there believe the “whale lake” looks more like a moon crescent, and the “elephant lake” looks more like the sun. So they say the lakes represent both lunar and solar forces, the “negative” and the “positive”, night and day. Once you can stand in balance in the middle of both after bathing in their “opposite” waters, your pilgrimage is a success. It is actually helping me to become more accepting of the things I can’t change in my past. It makes me feel that maybe I had to experience such anger as to massacre people to later on being given the opportunity to understand it as my “bath in negativity” to re-emerge from a more “positive” place, after walking for a thousand years around the mountain of myself. I am humbled and I profoundly appreciate this new understanding a foreign concept gave me…

-Me too, says Badis. And remember that our calendar is lunar while yours is solar, but they can coexist in beauty, exactly like our ONE sun and ONE moon coexist in the sky… It would be great to honor that sun and moon concept in a palace, by the way… It’s giving me ideas.

-So why don’t you tell me a bit more about this world I’m in, and maybe that chess game, asks Charlemagne. I must admit that I never really learned how to play… And now that I saw Abul Abbas in this amazing ivory chess piece I would also like to know more just to honor his memory. I miss him so much!

-How did your elephant die? asks Badis.

-Well, I think he died of cold after… oh wow! realizes Charlemagne. He died after taking a bath, close to where two rivers meet, not too far from where I ordered the massacre of the Saxon “infidels”… He ended like he started… by the river.

-Poor thing, laments Badis the Fish King. Maybe the water showed the scene of the massacre to him, and he could not take it… You know that water remembers and reflects it all, don’t you? But back to the times when your elephant was alive, I guess he must have taken so much space in your world that it was difficult not to end up loving him.

-Very true! says Charlemagne. You’ve intrigued me with that water-memory thing.

-One ‘thing’ at a time, Shah Riman… For now, let’s just say that water, like elephants, has a very good memory. Now tell me, why do you think you received that magnificent pet from Harun ar-Rashid, Baghdad’s Amir al-Mu’minin, prince of the believers?

-Well, I guess the Caliph wanted to impress me.

-Oh, that’s for sure, says Badis. But aaaah, Imbiratur Shah Riman, my dear Pomegranate King… There’s so much more. So many things I am willing to share with you. I think I should give you my understanding of Aboo’s symbolic meaning as you move his chess piece on the board here-

-I’d love to, but how can I do that in this spider guise? wonders the Frankish Emperor.

-Well, shapeshift, my dear! It would actually feel great to talk to a man instead of an arachnid for a while!

-I am not sure how to do that…

-Just do as you did when your spirit entered this spider! Concentrate on your former appearance! And you know what? If you do that, I am willing to undergo some transformation myself, I am tired of masks…


-Just concentrate, Shah Riman, and please be ‘you’ again… So that I can be ‘me’ too…

Without understanding much of what King Badis has just said, Charlemagne-the-spider focuses on projecting his former human self on the body he now occupies. After a few seconds, he is able to shapeshift from spider to man. What a joyous relief! When he is done basking in the bliss of his regained human appearance, he realizes he is also facing a different man. Now completely clad in white, the king still sports a turban and a white beard, but he is much more slender than his former version, and there is a new sparkle in his eyes.

-Will you forgive me, oh Emperor, for my former disguise? says Charlemagne’s host. You might think I was inspired by Harun al Rashid’s character in the Arabian Nights, he who roamed Baghdad disguised as a merchant to better understand his people while they were  unaware of his true identity. As for me, I was wearing a disguise higher than my “rank”. I am no King, but rather the King’s vizier. My real name is Samuel ibn Nagrella, although my Jewish community called me “Ha-Nagid”, which means the Prince. I hope it can compensate…

-Why didn’t you show your true self first? wonders Charlemagne.

-If I may, why did YOU choose a SPIDER to come out of your dead realm’s cave?

-Heehee, touché, answers Charlemagne, strangely pleased with this switch in personality his host has operated.

-I feared you might not want to address me as an equal if I was “only” a vizier, confesses Samuel. But your Jewish friend story has torn down my walls. It feels so good to be real!

-It does, agrees Charlemagne.

-You know, adds Samuel, between you and me, it was I, Samuel, not King Badis, who made all the important decisions anyway… I think I am a bit like your ancestor, the “mayor of palace” who took over the last Merovingian King’s position…

-Oh I see! Haha! You were clever then…

-Thank you. So now that you regained your limbs, please enjoy grasping this magnificent piece, mini Aboo, so that I can explain a few things to you, like the true meaning of your gifts from Baghdad! Are you ready for some magical mischief or mischievous magic?


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