Shabkhez H – Hibah Shabkhez

When first I climbed out into to this Land of do-as-you-please, it was an Inkdeath that I would fain have guarded against, for I deemed it quite inevitable: how can the Inkspell fail, thought I, when you spend more of your life within it than without? Lorenzaccio … but it was not so. This land remains the half-dream it always was, a Middle Earth one steps into for adventures, while that Land of the Lost scarce-glimpsed now from the top of the Magic Faraway Tree remains so starkly real, so starkly mine.
Every time I say a ‘Bonjour’ or hear one said to me, a voice at the back of my brain goes something like ‘Tintatintin. Studio 100, Page 97, Exercice 4, Dialogue 1’ … Nothing matters quite so much here, or in quite the same way. People, places – there is a veil of words that makes them not-quite-real even though they be living flesh and stone. I suppose I might never have noticed this, had I not, for the space of a heartbeat, slid down the slippery-slip and out again into The Land of the Lost.
The food, the language, the grit, the stench – all of it springs completely, effortlessly into existence: what you say and what you do and what you are suddenly means something, because your own Fellowship is there. And then you go north, true North where the mountains are, and you know the Land of the Lost is forever your one vérité, even if everything in it cries out: “You? You’ve always been a tourist here, you just didn’t know it.” Of that city I call my own I know less than nothing – were I to live in it for another hundred years I would know less than nothing still – and yet it is my ‘real’ world to the core as no other place can be. To return to it is no Homecoming even, because it is easier than snapping a book shut and as complete as being Recalled to Life.
There lies our Kingdom of the Last Room, and the Fellowship of the Ring that was born within it, scattered now, yes, but not broken. There we have food, actual food: mangoes, biryani, barbeque, fish, naan-cholay, shwarma, siri-paye … this list goes on forever. And my books, my own Strong City of Stories, my fortress against everything: the memory of it must hold me sane now, and the knowledge that it is always all there for me, waiting … except, is it? Or will Time steal it from me while I dream?
I love this Magic-Faraway-Tree Land of mine. This is a story I want to read – and write – unto the very end, which I hope and pray will be as blest as the beginning. But I do wish I had the power to open and close the book upon it as I pleased – a Wishing Chair to carry me There and Back Again.

Once upon a time, there was a nation that dreamt of a land of the pure, with unity, faith and discipline as its watchwords. It turned into a land of the lost instead. But the dream – the dream lives on: as long as one soul remains to bear its lantern into the future, the dream will never die. Like its sister-dream of liberté, égalité, fraternité, which Eden itself would be hard put to realise, it may never find us worthy. But we dream of what we yearn to be, not of what we are, and that desire is what keeps us human in spite of ourselves.
All that is noble and blest is made up of such dreams, and among the most splendid dreams in history there was also this one :
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Never mind who first pinned this dream to paper, never mind if the nation that embraced these words for all the world to see ever truly ‘meant’ or ‘deserved’ it. Is there, has there ever been, a nation upon this earth that could look its past – or its present – in the face?
Dreams do not ask of us their guardians pure hearts and untainted souls. They only ask that when we look upon the bleak truth of our world and find ourselves forced to say, “Not yet” we smile and hoist their banners a little higher, whispering “Tomorrow is another day.” So that the people of the world may smile also, and take up the echo of our whisper, to carry the dream beyond the sunset upon the wings of hope. Because when there is no one left to whisper the dream onward it must die.
And today I wonder – this song of the Mother of Exiles, must it now perish? Or are there still guardians left to stretch forth her beacon-hand? Will there be someone somewhere, today and tomorrow and a thousand years hence, who will catch up the banner of this most glorious and wistful of dreams?

“And so it was that Smith realised, after years uncounted in the wilderness, that putting mayonnaise on roast beef was wrong. It had come to him slowly, as slowly as oil leaking out of dinosaur bones.”
The sources, I fear, are quite hopelessly lost; but I do recall that the second line is from a free self-help ebook of some sort, and the first from a writing manual which was holding it up to demonstrate how not to write. And I remember thinking to myself: ‘Dear Lord, if only I could write like that, I would never again ask you for anything.’ A trifle fervid perhaps, the declaration. But the meat-poison cliche does come to mind.
Messieurs-dames the self-appointed Guardians of Writing, what ye shun as meat I welcome as poison. Come, O noble rhyme, thou outcast soul of true poesy. Come, adjectives, adverbs, cliches, long sentences, trite similes, mixed metaphors; come, my dear old friend the passive voice … Let our Last Castle be built with mangoes and chocolate and ice-cream, and endure upon that sable shore where the only ink that can whet a pen is the heart’s own blood. Let it there endure, unto the calamitous day the sun rises in the West.


Hibah Shabkhez is a writer of the half-yo literary tradition, an erratic language-learning enthusiast, a teacher of French as a foreign language and a happily eccentric blogger from Lahore, Pakistan. Her work has previously appeared in The Mojave Heart Review, Third Wednesday, Brine, Petrichor, Remembered Arts, Rigorous and a number of other literary magazines. Studying life, languages and literature from a comparative perspective across linguistic and cultural boundaries holds a particular fascination for her.

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