INTRODUCTION

Johnny meets the Janissary

It was a fine summer’s evening. The blue sky had just taken on a golden tint and a group of geese were flying high like an arrowhead towards some unknown destination. The mountains in the distance seemed to be taking on a blue hue and a lone car could be seen finding its way to a little town nestled in the hills. Behind the wheel was a young man on his way to meet a man said to be well versed in a faith he was presently studying – a faith called Islam.

Johnny’s curiosity of Islam had been piqued when once walking past a park early one morning a month earlier, he had come across a group of people praying, men in front and women behind, upon dainty mats or carpets spread out on the grass, all led by a wizened old redbeard garbed in a white robe and a bright red skullcap neatly perched on his crown. The lot of them seemed so other worldly, as if right out of a tale from the Arabian Nights he had read as a child. The group seemed to mimic the redbeard in every single detail with an almost military precision. They stood in neat rows, one line after the other as if in some sort of army drill, only that their hands were folded across their chests. They then bowed down, their bodies bent in a right angle, their backs straight, with hands on their knees and eyes fixated on the ground below; they then went down on their knees, on all fours as it were, placing their foreheads on the carpeted ground.

From a distance they now looked as if they were a flock of sheep and if they had a shepherd, it had to be their leader, but strangely he himself had assumed the same pose; they then stood seated on their knees for a short while before going down again, as if in some sort of ancient arcane rite, prostrating before some unseen force or power, for there were no idols around. They again assumed a seated posture on their knees, before turning their heads to the right and then to the left. Their ritual, or whatever it was, seemed to be over, and he could now see them greeting one another, young and old, black and white and in shades of colours between the two. They seemed to be happy, these folk, whoever they were, smiling with beaming faces, and clasping one another’s hands, and even embracing each other as if they had won a victory of some sort.

   Who are these people? he asked himself. They seemed as if they were from another era; he had seen some of their likes only in the drawings accompanying the fairy tales he had read in his very young days; but these were very real people. Many of the men, but not all, wore beards, some of these little more than a stubble, and others longer, about the size of a fist or even longer, while one old fellow had a really long one, like the Longobards of his history class. Some of the older folk had hair and beards of a weird reddish brown, though it seemed strange that some of the darker skinned ones also had this peculiarity, which Johnny concluded might be because they had their hair dyed with some natural hair colour, perhaps that exotic dye called henna he had heard about.

The women had their heads covered, some in black, some in white and others in myriads of other colours; some, with their long black gowns and wimpled heads looked like nuns of some sort, not very unlike the Catholic nuns he knew, only that they were all in black; others, also long robed, wore colourful headscarves, like Orthodox Russian women at church or in the cold of winter, though here it was a mild Summer’s day; many of the younger ones in their early teens wore ankle-length frocks, and one he could see, a pretty young lass of about twelve or thirteen dressed in a long white frock with a red headscarf wound round her rosy face, a little Red Riding Hood.

A few of the women looked rather strange or even foreboding to his untrained eyes, for they were veiled all black, with only a slit for their eyes; they struck him as being a rather militant lot, like some Japanese Ninja warriors. Perhaps they did n’t like men gazing at them, which explained why they were all covered up so completely. They were a few nevertheless, though they stood out from the rest. In any case, he reasoned, they were not all that shut out from the world like the cloistered Carmelite nuns of his Christian faith. At least these veiled ladies came out once in a while. There was plenty of variety here, even among the fairer sex. At length he could see them streaming out of the park, happy families of the likes he had never set eyes on before, faces shining in the light of the morning sun. They had just finished the prayer of their festival of Eid Ul Fitr after a moon long fast.

So here he was on his way to meet a man who belonged to this community of believers, one whom he could speak to about this faith called Islam. The man lived in a mosque not very far away and as he approached the mosque from a distance, he could see it was a rather imposing structure, giving to Johnny’s fertile imagination the impression of a giant soldier rising from the earth, for its blue grey dome seemed like a colossal army helmet and its minaret or spire from which the call to prayer was being made, like a colossal gun flung on its shoulder with a bayonet for good measure.

As he drove closer, the perception changed and he now found himself walking towards a grand and extremely beautiful edifice surrounded by blooming blossoms the likes of which his eyes had never feasted upon before. The huge dome he had seen from a distance crowned a most charming structure with ornate Gothic arches and fine Arabesque motifs. The minaret he now saw not as a jutting piece of martial metal, but as a tall tower with a balcony of sorts nearer the summit, and wondered whether not it was the inspiration behind that most picturesque of European castles, Neuschwansteinberg in the Black Forest built by King Ludwig of Bavaria over a hundred years ago, the spires of which it closely resembled.

As he parked his little car and walked past the gate, he could see the faithful in prayer. Tarrying a while, he noticed a young man come out and greeted him Assalamu Alaikum Peace Be Upon You! The young fellow, about his age, replied Wa Alaikum Salam And upon you be peace! Johnny inquired where he could meet Sheikh Ahmed and he was directed to an old man lost in contemplation in a corner of the mosque. The ruddy old man garbed in long white robe struck him as a dignified looking fellow, with deep set eyes and an aquiline nose and a flowing white beard, a bit like Gandolf in the film Lord of the Rings he had seen at the cinema a few years ago. It was getting dark and a large chandelier hanging from high now took the place of the sun sinking in the horizon. It brightly illuminated the prayer area while beautiful lamps fitted on to the walls spread their light into the corners of the mosque including the recess in which the old man sat in calm contemplation.

The quiet old man was referred to as the Janissary by all those around him. He was said to be a descendant of an unusually meek member of the Ottoman Turkish Guard known as the Janissaries which in the heyday of that great empire protected it from within and without and extended its domains far and wide. His ancestor Aslam Beg had wanted no part in a rebellion against the Sultan who wanted to modernize his army along European lines, absorbing the restless Janissaries in the process.

The Janissaries rebelled, but met with a swift response from the Sultan’s army. Its leaders were killed and its young recruits exiled. That was in 1860. Young Aslam had meanwhile returned to his hometown of Pristina and set up home to sire a long line of scholars. The quiet old man was the last of the line as he had only three daughters who had gone their own ways. The name of his ancestor stuck, and they were all called Janissary, down to the last of the line, the venerable old Ahmed himself. So Johnny now decided to shoot out the first of his questions.