Rumour

From Ultramarijn (Ultramarine), published by Podium, 2005. Translated by S.J. Leinbach for the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature (NLPVF).

www.nlpvf.nl

Like snow on a duck's back

There is probably no more sensual ode to the aubergine than that by Ibn al Mustakfi in his cookbook-cum-morality guide Kitab al Wusla il al Habib (Baghdad, 1226). "Take two, preferably small, tender-skinned aubergines – fruits which are not yet completely ripe but have nevertheless attained a substantial size and contain considerable potency – fruits of unequal size perhaps, but fresh from the sun-bleached fields and purplish-black in colour, gleaming like the testicles of a chamois and redolent of the lips of a beast of burden in heat for the very first time: do not use the odourless ones, whose milk always tastes of iron, for they lack the sultriness of summer..."

Ibn al Mustakfi starts his book with the customary pious formulas. But the most remarkable thing about the work is the famous preamble to his recipe for what would become known as Buran al Mustakfiya – puréed aubergine with sheep's brains – in which he rigorously divides the human pleasure principle into six main categories: eating, drinking, love-making, dressing, smelling and what he calls "tasting sound", bringing forth the sounds of the lute. There is no greater pleasure than eating, and his cosmos makes no allowance for the pleasures of the eye: painting. He prefers to paint with foods, with coriander and roasted cumin; to work his magic with eggs cooked in myrrh, lamb stewed in pomegranate juice, or bouillabaisse with just a pinch of cinnamon. "Even a worm on a rock eats herbs and spices," Mustakfi remarks at one point. Sixteen-year-old Özlem is utterly and blissfully unaware of all this when, on 22 June 1971 in a new neighbourhood on the outskirts of Frankfurt, she gingerly dips her left foot into the bathwater and then, no less carefully, lets her right foot follow. She slides slowly down on her buttocks, feels the water tickle her belly and armpits, and finally disappears under the bubbles, while the suds slop over the edge of the bath.

Silence, humming in her ears.

She surfaces spluttering. The sun is shining through the ribbed glass of the window. On the street a dog is barking, and then another, for no other reason than because it is a summer morning. Every few minutes the shadow of a cloud passes over the neighbourhood and a chill comes over the room. As if the sky is shivering, she thinks, lying here inside, safe in the warm water. She locked the door, just to be sure. She plans on lying here for hours, maybe even setting a record. A personal one, at least. How long can one person soak anyway? Has anyone ever made a study of that? It's the holidays, and there's not exactly anything else to do in this crummy neighbourhood. She doesn't feel like washing dishes or scrubbing the floor or rinsing liver clean at her mother's restaurant. Aysel's Corner is almost too small to be a restaurant – plus business is slack on weekdays – but at the weekend they come all the way from the city centre for mum's liver. The marinated and grilled livers are truly unsurpassed; a healthy squirt of lemon juice, a pinch of cayenne pepper: her mouth waters at the thought.

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