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In Antioch to Rediscover Athens

Adelard of Bath (A.D. 1080-1152) was an English monk. During the politically charged years just after the First Crusade, he traveled from England to France, Spain, Italy, and Turkey seeking manuscripts, sometimes in Arabic, of works by ancient Greco-Roman authors to translate for European scholars. Among the works he translated into Latin is Euclid’s Geometry.

(Notes: a “rouncy” is a work horse sometimes used for riding; “Nasrani” and “Salibi” are Arabic terms for “Christian.”)


I

I slept in stables with the rats and lice.
I drank from peasants’ wells. A crumbling slice
Of bread and cheese might serve as lunch. And, yet,
I sipped a prince’s claret, snoozed by gables
At dawn, and joked at nobles’ tables,
Then slept on down beneath mosquito net.
On rouncy, donkey, mule, or camel, cart
Or wagon, in a hayloft or at court,
I prayed for what philosophy inspires,
That strength of mind when honesty inquires.


II

I cursed a mule and kissed a dromedary.
I sweat on roads and snored in monastery.
I bumped along on donkey, in a wagon,
On hope. I slurped from hands, sipped from flagon
And drains. And I arrived in Antioch
And Tarsus, soft as down and tough as rock.


III

The merchant whisper-hissed ”Nasrani!
Salibi! A curse on you, your money,
And all your people!” Now, I’d heard in Tours
And Bath of “Arab scum” and “Muslim whore”
And “Turkish trash.” Just then, I felt glad I’d paid
Two denarii for a new green cape—fair trade.
His black eyes blamed me for Jerusalem.
Pink skin, blue eyes, blond hair made me “the scum.”
My friend tugged me to other stalls and booths:
Salt, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, carpets, boots
And sandals, onions, olives, chickpeas, oil.
“Salibi” whispered now from every smile.
I’d make my case through fine translation
To open minds in every hostile nation.
Till then, I’d cultivate my holy path
And stroll the market, take a Turkish bath.


IV

We nibbled on harisa, almonds, dates,
Ignoring news of warring tribal states,
Invasion’s rumbles. As amicus
He offered me his abacus
To learn more algebra. Its elegance
Reminded me of Euclid’s Elements
And Al-Khwarizmi’s tables. The wise
Seek help. Their understanding multiplies.
I’ve seen a Muslim child flick those beads
More quickly than a Christian monarch reads
And show more knowledge in a moment’s doubt
Than fifty abbots’ prayers. I didn’t shout
To demonstrate my passion. Prayerful calm
Effused my gratitude, my grin a psalm
Of hope. The dates and figs were sweet and rich.
Despite the heat and flies, the stinking ditch
And sultan’s secret stare, I reveled, blessed
The Lord. For seven years I couldn’t rest!


V

My final dusk there, from Levantine coast—
Past all formality of town and court,
Past grinning pleasantry of guest and host,
Past all machinery of wharf and port—
I watched the crimson golden sun descend
Beyond the sea on which I’d sail next noon.
For those who holler “Muslim dogs!” I’d sinned,
Befriended heathen murderers. Soon
These manuscripts, this wisdom, might engage
And re-enlighten paths to Ancient Greece
And future peace, might redefine this age
Of bloody hope. Well, “heathen curs” can greet
And teach. I offer them my pen and ink.
God wills it.
                          Coast: the end, the start, the brink.
Posted 04/10/17
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