Saturday, February 5, 2011

Flashpoint to Freedom?

 Oh, but what a time it is! I have been glued to events in the Middle East, watching and waiting with the rest of the world.
Brave people fighting for the end of a dictatorship, wanting to taste the waters of a new Nile. How and when it will come about -- if it truly can come about -- is written on the wind, and no one really knows which way that wind will blow.

I was thinking about a children's story I wrote several years ago, and am posting it now.
I hope some editor or agent out there reads it and likes it. (It's actually drawn from a proposed series of stories -- one animal, one child, one historical event in each, throughout history.)

In any case, when Aten's Goat made the rounds in New York in the 1990s, it garnered positive comments despite the rejection letters, and that was encouraging. But, writers can't eat encouragement any more than starving people can subsist solely on dreams of freedom; writers need contracts and books!

One thing strikes me as I revisit my story -- Hosni Mubarak needs to save face, retain dignity, leave office without shame, or so the culture strongly insists. I get that. I also get that it's very hard for despots to let go after thirty years of rule.

But, I also know that killing and torturing one's own people in order to control them is antithetical to my particular Pharaoh. When a famine comes to his ancient Egypt, he worries about his people because he is their royal god -- and he worries that his forefathers, not his people, are laughing at him.
Quite wisely, the Pharaoh in my story points out that if the people die, he will have no one left to rule.
Maybe he doesn't really care about "the people" but he is, at least, shrewd enough to see the obvious.

My question now is -- just how wise is modern-day Hosni Mubarak?

Here's my picture book text -- I hope you enjoy it.

ATEN’S GOAT         
          Long ago in Egypt when the Nile River sparkled and the Sphinx still had a nose, a man named Halem lived with his grandson, Aten, in a fine house near the Pharaoh’s palace.
          Halem was the Royal Soothsayer to the mighty Pharaoh. Whenever the Pharaoh was worried, it was Halem’s job to look for signs of good or evil in the heavens and in all of nature and explain what they meant.
          When the Pharaoh wondered if the water of the Nile was too low, Halem would read the stars and answer, “The Nile will rise again in one day and one night.”
          Sometimes the Pharaoh cried, “The Nile floods the land too quickly! Will it drown us?”
          Halem examined earthworms. If they were swollen, he'd reply, “Great Pharaoh, the Nile's water will return to normal in two days. It will not drown us.”
          There were moonlit nights when the Pharaoh couldn’t sleep. He would send for Halem.
          “Tell me!” the Pharaoh commanded. “Will Egypt’s enemies defeat us?”
          And Halem would sacrifice a ram or goat and study its intestines for important clues.
          “You must not fight for three days,” Halem would answer. “Avoid them tomorrow.”
          Halem’s advice calmed the Pharaoh. He would return to his stone bed and soft cushions and dream of his ancestors sleeping with eyes open, still and quiet within their tombs.    
          Sometimes Halem made a mistake, but the Pharaoh did not punish him because his mistakes numbered less than five in a whole year.
          One year, the Pharaoh was so pleased with Halem that he gave him a gift of fifteen hundred goats and sheep.
          “You honor me, Great Pharaoh,” Halem bowed low. “And honor is reward enough. In turn, I shall give the herds to the Royal Palace and your family.”
          The Pharaoh was indeed impressed. “Thank you, Halem. But I insist you take at least one of the flock as a symbol of my gratitude.”
          Halem chose a small goat with black ears to bring home to his grandson, Aten. The little she-goat would make a perfect friend.

          Aten was delighted. Every day, he sat beneath the laurel trees, in the shade of ripe figs. He drew pictures while his little goat, Set-Set, nibbled the grass and shook her long white coat in the sunshine.
          One morning, after Set-Set had eaten a golden orange, she began to sing. “I am a little goat of Egypt,” she sang. “Aten's goat. His only goat.” And then she jumped and tossed her head.
          “You can sing!” Aten exclaimed. “You are a magic goat!”
          Set-Set bleated, “Maa! Maa!” And tossed her head once more.
After a lunch of olives, cheese and pomegranates, the pair waited patiently for Halem’s return from the Pharaoh’s palace.

          Aten loved afternoons with his grandfather! They sat together in the sun-lit garden and drew pictures while Set-Set nibbled the grass nearby.
          One day, as Halem lifted Aten onto his lap, he smiled so deeply that Aten was able to count all the lines in Halem’s cheeks. Then he counted the brown freckles on Halem’s hands.
          “Why do you have so many lines and freckles?” Aten asked.
          “The lines come to everyone who seeks wisdom,” Halem explained. “Each freckle represents one wise thought.”
          “But you have many more lines than freckles,” Aten said.
          “Yes,” laughed Halem. “The search for wisdom never ends. You may have to look in a thousand places before you discover one single wise thought.”
          “Are you wise because you read the stars and sacrifice goats and rams, Grandfather?”
          “I am wise because the Pharaoh thinks I am,” Halem laughed.
          “Will you ever sacrifice Set-Set, Grandfather?”
          “Set-Set is your friend, Aten. Set-Set is not meant for sacrifice,” And then Aten and Halem went for a walk under the laurel trees and in the shade of ripe figs.
          Set-Set ran beside them, chasing the wandering bees and shaking her coat in the sunshine.

          When Aten and Set-Set had lived through eight plantings of wheat and barley, a famine came to Egypt. At first no one really knew it was there except for Halem. Sitting on a stone bench one morning, he looked into the sky and saw tiny red particles hovering in the sun’s rays. Yet no wind stirred the earth.
          Halem went at once to the Pharaoh’s palace.
          “A famine begins, Great Pharaoh,” Halem said. “Fill all the wheat granaries. Fill the water urns, too. For the famine comes.”
          And so the famine crept along the green valleys of the Nile and all the waters evaporated. Every green plant turned brown. The figs and dates shrivelled up. Frogs and turtles hid under bleached pebbles in empty ponds and eventually died. All the birds flew away. And the rams and goats were eaten so quickly that soon none remained, except for Set-Set.
          “We must hide Set-Set,” Halem told Aten. “Take her down into the wine cave and guard her.”
          Aten found a cool corner in the cave near the house. He sat with Set-Set on a soft pallet. Thin and hungry like Aten, Set-Set sang anyway. “I am a little goat of Egypt. Aten’s goat. His only goat.”

          Hunger made the children’s eyes grow large. So the Pharaoh opened the wheat granaries and the people of Egypt ate. Water in huge urns splashed into everyone’s cups until the last drop was  gone.
          The Pharaoh summoned Halem to the Palace. “How much longer will the famine last?” he asked.
          “I will count the number of teeth in the old men’s smiles,” Halem said.
          “Will you not examine the insides of a ram?” asked the Pharaoh.
          “There are no rams left, Great One. I will count the teeth, instead.”      
          When Halem had finished counting, he told the Pharaoh, “The famine will last another year. The old men’s smiles will fade.”
          So the Pharaoh ordered the caravans to bring water and food from the city of Byblos where there was no famine.
          “How long will it take before the caravans return?” asked the Pharaoh.
          Halem looked at the sky. Red dust marked the moon’s face like pox.
          “I cannot be certain, Mighty Pharaoh. There are sandstorms in the desert now. They will cut men’s eyes and blind the camels.”
          The Pharaoh grew angry. “You cannot be certain? That is a poor answer! Why do you not examine the intestines of a goat?”
          “The goats are gone,” Halem said.
          “And your grandson’s goat?” the Pharaoh demanded. “Has it died, too?”
          “She is too sick to be of any use, Great One. She is almost dried up,” Halem answered.
          “If the people die,” the Pharaoh shouted, “I will have no one to rule!”
          When the Pharaoh returned to his stone bed and soft cushions, he dreamt of his ancestors sleeping with eyes open, laughing at him.

          That night Aten found Halem looking at the stars.
          “What do the stars say?” asked Aten.
          “They say the Pharaoh comes to our house. He comes for Set-Set.”
          “But he can’t!” Aten wept.
          “If we try to stop him, we will surely die,” Halem answered.

          Halem was right. The Pharaoh arrived with trumpeters and guards. His face was dark.
          “I must take this last goat of Egypt,” the Pharaoh explained. “If I sacrifice her to the gods, surely they will pity us and end this famine.”
          The guards carried Set-Set from the cave. She was so weak that when she cried, “Maa! Maa!” only Aten’s heart could hear her.

          The next morning the people of Egypt gathered to witness Set-Set’s sacrifice at the Temple. The old men came, leaning on sticks. Hungry babies drooped in their mothers’ arms, and all eyes of Egypt looked for a sign of  hope.
          Aten stood in front of the crowd, shivering because he was frightened.
          “Since this goat belongs to the Royal Soothsayer’s house, he shall conduct the sacrifice,” the Pharaoh commanded.
          And so with a trembling hand, Halem lifted his knife up towards the sun, ready to strike Set-Set. All eyes watched Halem’s arm.
          Suddenly Aten shouted, “No, no! Stop!” And he ran so quickly no one could catch him.
          He raced up the stairs to the altar and threw himself across Set-Set. Halem’s blade stopped but a hair’s breadth from Aten’s neck.
          “Please, don’t kill my goat!” Aten begged the Pharaoh. “Sacrifice me instead.  The gods might like that even more!”
          The crowd rumbled. Aten was offending the Pharaoh!
          The Pharaoh was greatly surprised. “You would exchange your life for a small goat?”
          Aten nodded slowly. He stroked Set-Set’s head. “She’s my friend.”
          Just then, Set-Set sang out. “I am a little goat of Egypt. Aten’s goat. His only goat.”
          Halem dropped his knife in astonishment. The Pharaoh sat down hard on his golden chair and stared at Set-Set. No one spoke!
          Finally, the Pharaoh declared, “As I spare the boy and save his goat, so shall the gods spare Egypt.”
          Suddenly, the sound of trumpets filled the air. Temple messengers hurried toward the Pharaoh.
          “Great One,” they announced, “the caravans are only a few hours away. They are carrying bread, cheese, olives, figs and heavy water skins. There will be food and drink for everyone tonight!”
          The crowd remained quiet, unable to believe such good news. Then Set-Set cried, “Maa-maa!”
          Aten laughed. The Pharaoh looked pleased.
          And the old men smiled though they had no teeth.

All Rights Reserved Carol Krenz 2011


  1. "Brave people fighting for the end of a dictatorship, wanting to taste the waters of a new Nile."

    Unless you're being sarcastic, I have a problem with this. Removing Mubarak, which is all the protesters are demanding at present, won't solve any of Egypt's very serious problems. In fact, although Mubarak is the dictator one loves to hate, the problems will only become worse. "Democracy" equals "anarchy" in the Arab world. Islam is a thoroughly autocratic religion; Allah is the ultimate dictator. Further, the Egyptian people have NEVER had a truly democratic government, they have no idea what that is, and the current army-led government has been firmly in place for two full generations. There won't be a functioning democracy, once the dust settles, in Egypt any more than the Kerensky government could control Russia in 1917. The question is really just how extreme will the group that hijacks Egypt's "revolution", and that depends on just how ruthless the emerging leader will be. ElBaradei certainly isn't a man to be ruthless about anything; will the Muslim Brotherhood be equally wimpy? I doubt it. It is truly alarming that the Shi'ite government in Iran is now claiming that Egypt is only following Iran's lead. Traditionally, the enmity between Sunni and Shi'a has prevented even ideologic union but now the West should be very, very uneasy about realignments in the Middle East. One must always remember that the true goal of the religious Muslim is the conversion of all infidels in the world.

    And I think the chances of a truly altruistic and benign dictator arising is about as likely as Mubarak getting a second chance. And I think that one of the unintended consequences of unrest in the Levant will be increased Muslim emigration to Europe, Canada, and the US, with Europe being the easiest to get to.

  2. Oh! Carol! I've meaning to tell you this for days now but got sidetracked by spending time reading Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosney: I just love this little story of yours. When I started reading this blog post, I thought you were putting up the text of a children's story you'd already published; I hadn't realised it wasn't already in print.
    I've always wished I could write sweet, poignant tales like this one, where only one main event happens but it speaks of so much more.

  3. Dear Met,

    While I share your concern about the supreme difficulty facing any nation that wants to have democracy when in their long history, freedom has never been part of their experience, I think we have to hope for the best.
    One major difference so far is that the people seem very smart, very intent on non-secular, or at least, a non theocratic constitution.
    I write this in the early morning hours of my Friday morning -- the day following Mubarak's delusional patronizing speech.

    Met-- we have to deal with whatever fall-out comes. My prayer is that whatever it is, the region's fragile stability will prevail.

  4. Dear Deniz,

    Thanks for reading it -- I appreciate your kind words.

    Seems Egypt is surrounding me right now.

    You write wonderful stories, too. Why do you think you can't do something like this? You have all the necessary ingredients. (G)

  5. Thank you Carol *blushing furiously*