This fic is part of my ongoing WW2 series, the Veraverse. It tells the backstory of The Turk, Sadik Adnan, the informant-for-hire who appears in both 'Auf Wiedersehen, Sweetheart' and 'Bésame Mucho.'
Pairing: Sadik Adnan/ Gupta Muhammad Hussan (Turkey/Egypt)
Summary: VV AU. 1914. Constantinople, Turkey. On the eve of war, street dweller Sadik Adnan's way of life and existence is called into question by the strange, beautiful Egyptian imam, Gupta Muhammad Hassan.
('Auf Wiedersehen, Sweetheart' Chapter Thirteen)
A village in Italy
"Why? Why is this worth it?"
Feliciano answered immediately, without thinking. "Because I love him."
The Turk looked vaguely amused. "This war just don't make sense anymore. But hey. Gold is worth the same whoever you get it from." The Turk stood to leave.
"And you?" asked Feliciano suddenly, surprising himself that he asked. "Why is what you do worth it? Is that gold in your pocket the only thing that matters?" Feliciano felt suddenly afraid as the Turk smirked down at him, one dark eyebrow raised in amusement. Feliciano shrank back into his chair.
"It's the only thing that lasts, little Resistenza. You'll learn that soon enough."
Feliciano didn't believe him. There were things worth more than gold. Things that lasted longer. Things like flowers, and winter afternoons, and photographs with goodbyes scrawled on the back. "Love lasts."
"Nice sentiment, kid." And for the briefest second, a flash of bitter memory seemed to pass over the Turk's face; as if he knew what Feliciano meant, as if he understood. But it was gone before Feliciano could be sure he had seen it. "But it's not true."
Sadik passed his years and sought his fortune on the hot, harsh streets of Constantinople. At sixteen, he'd seen more of life and known more of hardship than most many times his age. He never had a family he remembered, or a friend who cared. He never had a room his own, or a coin he earned. But Sadik needed none of that. Sadik survived on his wits and his instinct. The world thought Sadik nothing, but he knew otherwise. He knew he was smarter. He knew he was stronger. Sadik was a Sultan of the streets, and he made his own way in this world. Sure, his own way included lying and cheating and downright stealing, but hey – life was only worth what you took from it.
The sun was high and the wind dry on the afternoon Sadik sought shelter in the lush gardens of the city mosque. He refused to enter the building - Sadik was no man of God. Instead, he liked to take off his shoes and feel the cool grass on his feet. He liked to rest beneath the shady trees, safe from the burning sun. He liked to drink from the tall, stone fountain, and wash his filthy hands beneath its long, carved column of cascading water. These gardens were a little patch of green in the raucous city, a small oasis that reminded Sadik there existed more than just harsh, dusty streets; more than starving days and freezing nights and men willing to cut your throat for the stolen coin in your pocket. This was a place Sadik took respite from his bitter fight for survival, even if only for a few hours. This was another world.
And it was on this day in early July, as Sadik approached the fountain for its clean, fresh water, that he first saw him.
The boy sat on the fountain's edge: still and unmoving, straight-backed and noble. Like an Egyptian Pharaoh of old; like something from another world. As he sat reading a book on his lap, a stream of sunlight fell upon him, and a light breeze rustled the cloth of his robe. For a moment, the blaring noise and heat of the world fell silent. This boy was the very image of serenity and peace. But more than that – he looked rich. Sadik collected his thoughts, and approached through the ring of trees.
"I bet I can guess what passage you're reading."
The boy raised his eyes slowly. He did not appear startled. He simply closed the book calmly on his lap and regarded Sadik carefully. When he spoke his voice was smooth and quiet. "Why would you bet on such a thing?"
Sadik shrugged defiantly. "Fun."
A slight movement at the corner of his lip. "What a strange sense of amusement you have."
"I bet for profit, also," Sadik replied challengingly. Sadik was good at betting. Usually because he cheated, but still.
"Very well," said the boy evenly. The falling water formed a misty cloud around him. "What is your wager?"
Sadik inspected the boy. He was not much older than Sadik himself. His traditional robe and head-covering were lined with silk; his feet were clad in new leather sandals. Yes, this boy was rich. Sadik grinned at the opportunity. "A pouch of gold."
"Money?" The boy sighed a quick, cool exhalation, and glanced away. "How disappointing. I thought you might be more interesting than that."
Sadik felt a little indignant, but just asked, "What, then, would you wager?"
The boy did not answer immediately. He appeared to be thinking, still unmoving. When he looked slowly back, the very wind seemed to stop. Sadik had long learnt not to look people in the eye; but he could not turn away from these deep, dark, unfathomably old eyes that held his in such an unbreakable hold. The boy took a deep breath before he answered. "Gold seems fair for such a trivial distraction. But let us not make it a pouch. A single gold coin will suffice."
Sadik forced himself to shrug indifferently. He only had one gold coin anyway, coincidentally… he had taken it from a drunk shopkeeper that very morning. Not that it mattered to this little bet. A gold coin was worth a lot, and Sadik had no intention of handing it over if he lost. "A single gold coin," he agreed.
The boy inclined his head. With his long headdress, sharp features, and slow, noble air, he put Sadik in mind of an Egyptian statue. "So, you are betting you can guess which passage I am reading. Please." The boy smiled, though his eyes did not change. "Guess."
Sadik actually thought twice. Maybe this wasn't… but no. He smiled back, mockingly, and prepared to incur the boy's rage. "'O ye who believe! Intoxicants and gambling are an abomination of Satan's handiwork. Shun such abomination that ye may prosper.'"
Sadik waited, but the boy did not become angry. He simply raised his eyebrows, intrigued. Sadik smirked. Maybe he had not understood. "No? Huh. Perhaps then it is, 'They ask thee concerning wine and gambling. Say: in them is great sin and some profit for men; but the sin is greater than the profit.'"
The boy looked amused now, but Sadik did not give him a chance to counteract. "No, I know… now you are going to tell me that, 'Verily Allah has cursed the Unbelievers and prepared for them a Blazing Fire.'" Sadik folded his arms and leant against the tree behind him. "But don't bother. I've heard it all before."
The boy's smile was genuinely delighted. "Clever." He again opened his book and placed a hand gently on the page. "But actually, the passage was none of those you recited."
Sadik rolled his eyes wryly. "You don't say."
"Indeed," the boy continued, ignorant or dismissive of Sadik's sarcasm. "In fact, as you first spoke to me, I was reading: 'Wherever you may be, death will overtake you - even though you be in strong towers.'"*
That made Sadik pause. This boy's response was not what he expected, and it made him strangely uncomfortable. Sadik reacted by standing straighter, taller, and looking down his nose. "What does that mean, then?"
The boy answered simply, unchanging. None of this seemed strange to him at all. "That no man can escape his fate."
Sadik felt a shudder at the words. It was the first time in his life he could not think of a response.
The boy held out a hand, palm upwards. "Your fate was to lose this day. A single gold coin - that was the wager."
Sadik refused to lose so easily. "Weren't you listening? Your holy book tells you that you're not allowed to gamble."
"And yet I did." The boy's dark eyes narrowed. "And you lost."
Sadik stared challengingly. This boy could not make him hand over the coin. He had not the strength. Yet those eyes were so deep, that gaze so sharp… to his great surprise, Sadik reached into his pocket, retrieved the gold coin, and placed it in the boy's cool, steady palm. The boy turned it over in his fingers, gazing at it impassively before placing it in a pocket of his robe. Sadik stared at his own empty palm. Why the hell had he done that?!
The boy continued serenely, easily, as though nothing had happened. "My name is Gupta Muhammad Hassan. I have travelled from Egypt to teach at your mosque."
From Egypt – of course. But to teach at the mosque? This boy looked no older than himself. Sadik tried to hide his surprise. "I thought imams were all old men."
Gupta looked faintly amused. "Ah, and imams do not gamble."
With no answer to that, Sadik responded to Gupta's previous remark. "It is not my mosque."
"No. But you enjoy the gardens?"
Sadik shrugged again. He was bewildered by this conversation, but determined not to show it. "It's cooler here. Quieter."
Gupta looked upwards as the breeze rustled his robe. "I understand. The noise becomes too much sometimes." He said it as though making conversation, as though to put Sadik at ease – yet it seemed like something both too frivolous and too meaningful. Sadik wondered why he did not turn to leave – he was not the type to stand speaking to a stranger, especially to one who had just taken his last coin. The silence was heavy until Gupta spoke again. "I have given you my name."
"Yeah, I know."
Gupta simply looked at him.
"Sadik." Gupta nodded thoughtfully. "Such a strong name. You do not attend the mosque, Sadik?"
Sadik scoffed contemptuously. "I've got better things to do."
"Oh?" Gupta almost looked concerned. "What do you have to do that is so important?"
Sadik kicked the dirt. "I've got a life, y'know. It takes more than prayers to keep it."
"So you gamble to keep it…" Gupta's eyes pierced his skin. Sadik was suddenly aware of his dusty, tattered clothes, but he stood tall and proud in them. He knew what this rich boy thought of him. Sadik prepared himself to retaliate. But then Gupta continued, his piercing eyes softening. "But what a precious thing to risk."
The dry wind gusted strongly. The water slowed in the fountain. The very day seemed to slow, the world to still. Sadik had never been so confused in his life. He had come to this garden simply for water, for shade. He never expected to find someone like this. "Who are you?"
Gupta laughed. It was unexpected, and light and clear as the sunlight that fell upon him. "I have told you this. My name is Gupta Muhammad Hassan."
Sadik leant back into the tree warily. "We are more than our name."
Gupta looked rather impressed. "This is true. Your name, Sadik… it means 'honesty,' did you know?"
Sadik shifted uncomfortably. He felt strangely embarrassed, and was not sure why. He did not know how to respond. Gupta closed his book, gathered his robe, and stood. His height was almost equal to Sadik's own, which was more than impressive, though his body looked slight beneath his robes. "I know you will not join me inside the mosque. But you are always welcome in these gardens, Sadik." Gupta gently touched Sadik's upper arm.
The moment their skin touched, Gupta's eyes darkened further. His smile fell. His lips parted; his eyebrows drew together. He seemed almost confused as he stared at his hand touching Sadik's arm. He ran his thumb slowly, uncertainly, in circles over Sadik's skin. Sadik's heart pounded at the unfamiliar feeling. Gupta whispered, and Sadik was not sure he heard the soft words correctly. "Strong towers."
Sadik could not move. He wondered if he would ever move again. He finally managed to choke out a query. "What?"
Gupta shook his head, dropped his hand, and clutched his book to his chest. He smiled sadly as he turned to walk away – he almost looked resigned to something. "I will see you tomorrow, Sadik."
Tomorrow… Sadik forced himself to return to reality. He'd be long gone by then.
When Sadik awoke beside the fountain, the sun low in the sky and his head in the sand, Gupta was standing above him. He wore the same long white robe and head covering from the previous day, and held a large fruit-filled bowl in his hands. He gave a small smile and inclined his head. "Good morning."
Sadik was immediately overcome by a wave of anger. He must have been more exhausted than he'd realised - how else had he fallen asleep here? He was not a beggar scrounging for a place to sleep, and waiting for scraps. He scrambled to a sitting position and stared at the food furiously. "What is this?"
Gupta replied calmly. "Breakfast."
Sadik's lip curled in a snarl. "Do you think I am a stray dog? I don't need your charity!"
Gupta tilted his head slowly. His deep, dark eyes stared into Sadik's own. Sadik felt ashamed, and lowered his gaze.
A long silence fell. Finally, Gupta spoke softly. "The word is 'sorry.'"
"I'm sorry." Sadik was surprised as he said it.
"I forgive you." Gupta sat down beside Sadik and placed the bowl between them. "Did you have a pleasant sleep?"
Sadik barely heard him. He dived for the water skin in the bowl, gulped down most of it, then poured the rest over his head. He had no time to answer. His pride was forgotten. He was filthy, he was thirsty, and he had not eaten in three days. He practically devoured an apple, reaching for another before he was finished.
Gupta did not seem bothered by Sadik's lack of response, or his furious hunger. He simply leant back on his hands and gazed up at the clear morning sky. "It must be lovely to sleep under the stars."
Sadik spoke around a mouthful of fruit. Maybe because he felt he should be polite; maybe because there seemed no option but to reply. "Lovely?" he scoffed. "You've never slept outside, I bet."
"No." Gupta turned and looked at Sadik. A spicy, warm, pleasant scent drifted from his robes. "Do you sleep outside every night?"
Sadik shrugged, and focused on the fruit. "Back streets. Shop fronts. Anywhere out of the way, really."
Gupta took a moment to respond. "Is it lonely?"
"I've always got the moon. It's like a friend, really." Sadik almost choked on his apple. He was so surprised he said that. He was usually so closed, so guarded; but Gupta drew words and answers from him effortlessly.
"That's lovely." Gupta smiled, and it made Sadik uncomfortable. He swallowed, lowered his apple, and hastened to turn the conversation away from himself.
"Anyway, aren't you lonely? In your big, empty mosque?"
"No. Because I am not alone, either." Gupta took a book from the bowl. Sadik had not even noticed it. Gupta placed it carefully on the grass, and pushed it gently towards Sadik.
Sadik felt hit by a wave of burning anger. As if he hadn't been preached to enough in his life… "If you're trying to convert me…"
"No," said Gupta immediately. "This is a not a holy book."
Sadik faltered, paused, and looked down. He could not read, but the picture on the front cover was of a grand, white palace against a background of a dark, starry sky. "A storybook? Do I look like a child?"
Gupta looked upwards, fondly exasperated. "No, Sadik. You are neither a child, nor a dog, but a hungry man who I thought might wish to hear a story on this fine morning."
"Sorry." The unfamiliar word felt strange on his tongue. Sadik never used it. How had this stranger managed to draw two apologies from him in one morning?
The stranger continued easily. "I forgive you. Before I read, however…" It seemed Gupta could not control the smile which tugged at his lips. "Perhaps a wager."
Sadik raised an eyebrow doubtfully. He tossed his apple core into the grass, stretched his legs before him, and leant back against the fountain. "But imams do not gamble."
Gupta leant forward and whispered, "Neither should they read from storybooks."
Well, that was true. For the first time, Sadik considered… maybe this imam was more like him than he thought to consider. Sadik thought carefully. "What is your wager, then?"
Gupta reached into his pocket and drew out the gold coin from the day before. "I bet this story will make you laugh."
Sadik almost laughed immediately. A strange bet, to be sure, and one he would never have expected from this calm, proper, composed member of the mosque. But Sadik was never one to back down from a bet; and he wanted that coin back. He raised his chin. "Go on, then."
Gupta carefully opened the thick book. The slightly yellowed pages were covered with intricate, unfathomable lines of text, with black and gold pictures of boats and trees and horses. Sadik stared, fascinated despite himself. His world was one of dusty streets, of pain and desperation and harsh reality. He knew nothing of such splendid things. Sadik suddenly wished to know all that was in this golden picture book. Gupta stopped when he reached a particular page. Sadik touched the paper, then quickly drew back his hand. Gupta just smiled as he began to read.
"There lived once in Baghdad a very wealthy man, who lost all his substance and became so poor, that he could only earn his living by excessive labour. One night, he lay down to sleep, dejected and sick at heart, and saw in a dream one who said to him, 'Thy fortune is at Cairo; go thither and seek it.' So he set out for Cairo; but, when he arrived there, night overtook him and he lay down to sleep in a mosque.
"Presently, as fate would have it, a company of thieves entered the mosque and made their way from thence into an adjoining house; but the people of the house, being aroused by the noise, awoke and cried out; whereupon the chief of the police came to their aid with his officers. The robbers made off; but the police entered the mosque and finding the man from Baghdad asleep there, laid hold of him and beat him with palm rods, till he was well-nigh dead. Then they cast him into prison, where he abode three days, after which the chief of the police sent for him and said to him, 'From whence art thou?' 'From Baghdad,' answered he. 'And what brought thee to Cairo?' asked the magistrate. Quoth the Baghdadi, 'I saw in a dream one who said to me, "Thy fortune is at Cairo; go thither to it." But when I came hither, the fortune that he promised me proved to be the beating I had of thee.'
"The chief of the police laughed, and said, 'O man of little wit, thrice have I seen in a dream one who said to me, "There is in Baghdad a house of such a fashion, in the garden whereof is a fountain, and thereunder a great sum of money buried. Go thither and take it." Yet I went not; but thou, of thy little wit, hast journeyed from place to place, on the faith of a dream, which was but an illusion of sleep.' Then he gave him money, saying, 'This is to help thee back to thy native land.' Now the house he had described was the man's own house in Baghdad; so the latter returned thither, and digging underneath the fountain in his garden, discovered a great treasure; and thus God gave him abundant fortune."
Gupta raised his dark eyes slowly. He read the story in such a way that Sadik could not help being enthralled by every word. Still, it took him a moment to understand, and he spoke hesitantly. "So, the wealthy man who came from Baghdad, he dreamt his fortune was in Cairo…"
"Yes," Gupta explained patiently. "And the chief of police dreamt a fortune was in Baghdad."
"So…" Sadik drummed his fingers on his knee, thinking. "The wealthy man's fortune was in his own house the entire time."
Gupta clapped his hands together, his dark eyes brightening. "Yes, exactly!"
Sadik felt his lips twitch. The story was sort of funny, in an ironic sort of way. He could even feel laughter bubbling in his chest, but it was probably more from Gupta's eager expression. But he refused to lose this bet. Gupta tilted his head and regarded him expectantly. Sadik forced himself to stare impassively back. "I… like it."
Gupta leant closer and wagged his eyebrows. That simple movement threatened to force the laughter from Sadik's lips. But he clenched his fists and refused to smile. He refused to lose. "I thought perhaps you might find it amusing," Gupta continued.
Sadik shrugged. He willed himself to stare at the ground. The bright sunlight cast shadows of the trees upon the grass. "It is… entertaining."
Gupta tapped his chin and narrowed his eyes, all while Sadik forbade himself to laugh. Finally Gupta gave up and sighed. "Very well. You win." He tossed the coin into the air. Sadik caught it easily, and immediately let the laughter spill from his lips. Gupta gasped, broke into a grin, and pointed triumphantly. "Ah ha! You lose!"
"Not at all!" replied Sadik, giggling under his breath as he placed the coin safely back in his pocket. "I am not laughing at the story. Merely at the look on your face when you lost!"
Gupta gasped again, but it was with laughter this time, and he pushed Sadik playfully on the shoulder. The touch sent a lightning strike through Sadik's skin. "That is cheating, my friend."
Sadik fought to respond, struck by that touch and those words… my friend… Sadik had never been anyone's friend. While part of him wanted to scoff, he felt such a swelling warmth in his chest that he couldn't bear to insult this kind Egyptian. It was a feeling he had never experienced. So he responded honestly. "It is not cheating when you are starving."
Gupta tossed him an orange from the bowl; Sadik caught it easily. "But you are not starving."
Sadik felt a little annoyed at that. "Not at this moment. That is not to say I won't soon be again."
"Sadik…" Gupta squeezed Sadik's arm, and looked at him kindly. "I meant my words yesterday. You are always welcome here. And it is not charity, it is hospitality." Gupta seemed so much older than he appeared. Sadik just burned from the touch on his arm. He quickly looked down at the story book.
"Are there more of these stories?"
Gupta smiled. "One thousand more."
Sadik was astounded. "So many. And they're all here, in this one book?"
"Yes." Gupta ran his fingers carefully over the pages, barely missing Sadik's hand. "It is another world."
Sadik's chest leapt. This book, this garden, this morning, this entire conversation... it was all another world. Gupta placed his hands in his lap, and fixed Sadik with an intrigued stare. "What did you think of the story of the man from Baghdad? What do you think was the meaning?"
Sadik answered immediately. "That it is important to search for your fortune."
When Gupta gently lowered his eyes, Sadik knew he was wrong. "Uh… no?"
"Both men had a dream," Gupta explained slowly. "Only one followed his. And what happened to him?"
Sadik thought carefully, tossing the orange between his hands. "He got beaten by the police and thrown into jail. Speaking from experience, that's not something I'd recommend."
Gupta laughed. It was clear and pure and joyful. Sadik knew again he was wrong, but was surprised to find he didn't really care. "Oh, Sadik," said Gupta merrily, "I do enjoy speaking with you."
Sadik did not think he had enjoyed anything more in his cruel, difficult life than speaking with this Egyptian preacher of Islam. He was like no person Sadik had ever known. Gupta seemed genuinely interested in what Sadik had to say, and for that reason alone, Sadik wanted nothing more than to please him. "Was it… the meaning… was it something about fate?"
Gupta smiled encouragingly. "Absolutely, the theme of fate was in the story."
"You believe in fate." Sadik said it with conviction, because he knew it immediately to be true.
"I believe in purpose. All men have a purpose." Sadik did not know if he believed that. "And you, Sadik?" Gupta's voice grew even softer. "What do you believe in?"
Sadik put down the orange, and took the gold coin from his pocket. "This."
Gupta frowned, disappointed. "But this is simply metal. They dig it from the mountains." Gupta dug a handful of dirt from the ground. "I could as easily say I believe in dirt."
Sadik carefully reached for Gupta's hand and dusted the dirt into the gusting wind. They both watched as it drifted away. "But dirt does not last." Sadik waved the coin. "This does."
Gupta breathed in sharply. "This can buy you things, Sadik, certainly. But things, in the end, are worthless. This, however." Gupta placed a gentle hand to Sadik's chest. "This is precious."
Sadik narrowed his eyes in confusion. All he was really aware of was how cool and steady Gupta's hand was in the heat of the day; how his heart beat faster beneath its touch. "My… me?" Gupta had said something similar the day before. But no one had ever thought Sadik precious… no one had ever thought him worth anything at all. Yes, he had his pride, but right now his pride seemed such a small and silly thing.
Gupta nodded kindly. "Your heart, your soul, and what you feel." Sadik was short of breath. What he felt – what did he feel? This, right now, was a feeling unlike anything he had ever known. It was searing and humbling and so very alive. He wanted Gupta to continue talking to him, to continue touching him, to continue laughing with him and saying his name and looking into him with those depthless eyes. He felt drawn to Gupta with every part of himself, with every beat of his heart and every rise of his chest.
Then Gupta took Sadik's hand and placed it on his own chest. The cloth of his robe was cool beneath Sadik's hand; the rise and fall of his chest steady and calm. Sadik fought to keep his fingers from trembling. Gupta smiled, and Sadik knew then that nothing in his aimless life had ever mattered more than these peaceful moments he passed in this garden with this unfathomable, breathtaking Egyptian. "This, my friend, is what truly lasts."
To be continued…
The story Gupta tells – 'The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through a Dream' – is not written by me. It is from the 'Thousand and One Nights,' and this particular version is a translation by John Payne, which is now in the public domain.
*1 Qu'ran 5:90
*2 Qu'ran 2:219
*3 Qur'an 33:64
*4 Qur'an, 4:78
For those patiently waiting, my next update will be 'Bésame Mucho.' x