A Pious Errand – a short story set in Old Cairo in 1042 CE

Saadya son of Suwayd elbowed his way with a few polite excuse-me’s in Arabic through the crowd of hawkers at the corner of the Street of the Waxmakers in al-Fustat and kept on walking. The large bundle of pages threatening to slip from under his arm represented the archive of his uncle, Ephraim, who had died a week ago. His uncle was from a respected Palestinian Jewish family who had, generations before, settled in Egypt in the then-capital, Fustat and, following in their footsteps, he had made a good living in importing medicinal plants from the East. He had finally been worn down by advanced age and a variety of ailments accumulated over a lifetime spent in a harsh climate. His books, expensive and well-thumbed possessions – leather-bound copies of the Hebrew Bible, the law books of Mishnah and Talmud as well as works in Arabic by physicians and philosophers -, had been inventoried for sale by the scribe of the Court of the Palestinian Jews and would be sold to benefit his heirs. Saadya regretted that he probably wouldn’t be able to afford any: these would be snapped up by a Jewish audience eager for sophisticated reading matter and for whom books were an expensive commodity. Besides his library, though, Saadya had found cupboards full of old sheets of paper and parchment. Some of it from the remains of books long fallen apart had evidently been kept for writing notes on – writing material was, after all, not cheap and was often reused -, but much was the accumulated detritus of a full life: letters and legal documents, lists and assorted writings – a copy of the Amida prayer, a poem that his uncle had heard performed in the synagogue and had liked enough to write down, a partnership agreement in a sugar factory near the ‘Fortress of the Greeks’, a deposition concerning the payment of a debt for 20 dinars, his deceased wife’s marriage deed detailing every item she brought with her into the marriage down to the last bedspread and pot, even a shopping list including “a fat hen” – the textual fabric of his uncle’s life.

Spreading the papers out in the sunlight, in the open courtyard of his uncle’s house, Saadya had attempted to sort them. Prayers and religious poems might have the name of God in them, the four letters that were so sacred no Jew would pronounce them – substituting the Hebrew for “my Lord”, adonay, instead -, and, as such, these were holy items and couldn’t just be thrown away. To throw them out would be an insult to God. Other names of God, “the Rock”, “the Place”, even the Arabic “Allah” were all holy in Jewish eyes too. Anything containing these would need to be deposited in the Genizah storeroom of the synagogue for safe keeping too. The problem was, though, that his uncle seemed to call on God a lot. A draft of a business letter blessed the recipient with “God keep and protect you” at every mention of his name. Even a list of expenses had “In Your name O Merciful One” written at the top of it, in imitation of the fashionable Islamic practice. Eventually Saadya had tired of trying to sort the papers out, to spot and decipher holy names in the variety of languages and scripts that his uncle wrote in – Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and Arabic in Hebrew characters – and he bundled them up and set off for the “Synagogue of the Palestinians”, the centre of Jewish life in al-Fustat.

The maze-like streets hid the synagogue until Saadya was right beside it. In the oldest part of an ancient city, it gleamed new. It had only been rebuilt in the last few years, following its destruction by the cruel Caliph al-Hakim, who had exacted vengeance for the disappointments of his reign on his Jewish and Christian subjects, burning and dismantling their synagogues and churches. Once he had been replaced by his son al-Zahir, powerful Jewish courtiers had lobbied the Fatimid court in Cairo to get permission to rebuild the ancient place of worship. The leading merchants had pitched in with money, and the synagogue was rebuilt in all its glory.

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Saadya found the synagogue beadle, Jeremiah, and showed him the bundle of papers: “I’m here to do my duty, and to honour the name of God. I need to deposit the papers of my uncle – may he rest in Eden – in the Genizah.” Leading him up into the synagogue building and over to a hole in the wall, big enough to stick a hand or head into, the beadle paused and made a show of thumbing through the pages: “Not all of this needs to be deposited. In fact, probably quite a lot of it doesn’t have the Lord’s name – may God be blessed – in it at all.” Saadya sighed: “While that may be true, my uncle was a pious man. Look, he writes a blessing at the top of every page he writes. In fact, he writes like you talk. Like we all talk. If I’m to do my duty, we need to ensure that His name is not profaned.” The beadle shrugged, reluctant to get drawn into a lengthy discussion on what had been a peaceful afternoon, and, opening his hand, he let the accumulated history of uncle Ephraim flutter down into the darkness below.

Ben Outhwaite received a PhD in Medieval Hebrew linguistics from Cambridge University in 2000, and has worked with the 200,000 manuscripts of the Cairo Genizah Collection at the Genizah Research Unit of Cambridge University Library ever since, the last nine years as head of the Unit. 

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