Originally published December 2012
By Ayesha Nasir
This is a fictional story which revolves around Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” poem.
“Hey, Perce? Care to pass me that newspaper?” Bill asked, his eyes glued to the plethora of essays he was reading, yet very much aware of his surroundings.
Percy Bysshe Shelley looked up from his bowl of chopped carrots and soup. His eyes skimmed across the polished marble table.
“Of course,” he replied, reaching out for the freshly-printed wad of huge, white sheets. Some of the black ink smeared onto his fingers as he deliberated which movement of his arm would cause the newspaper to land directly in Bill’s lap.
Bill wasn’t amused. He cocked an eyebrow.
“Hang on a moment,” Percy muttered. He had spotted something on the front page; something that made his hands tremble and his heart skip a beat.
“What is it?” Bill asked, showing some signs of curiosity.
“This,” replied Percy, pointing at the newspaper and grinning like a man who had just unearthed the world’s greatest treasure. He flung the newspaper onto the marble-topped counter, allowing Bill to read the headlines which claimed:
EGYPTIAN STATUE RECOVERED FROM RUINS
Percy was somewhere far away.
“The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed”
In the afterglow of a now vanished sun, a figure quietly stood up from her crouching position by the River Nile. She was draped in a dark cloak which almost caused her to dissolve into the landscape. In her hands she carried a bundle, carefully wrapped, close to her chest. You could tell by her contorted face and fitful gasps that there was a struggle going on between her heart and soul.
Just like the mother of Prophet Musa (peace be upon him), she turned to the sun that dipped into the western horizon and murmured a prayer to her Lord.
“Keep this child alive,” she gasped, unable to ask for anything more.
Gently unclasping the bundle, she placed it near the riverbank. When morning arrived she knew someone was bound to find her son. She hoped, dearly, that the ruling Pharaoh would never know of his existence, would never lay a finger on him.
Percy struggled at first. What he had heard of the ruins was enough to excite him but he could not explain? the strange attraction he felt towards Egypt.
“You’re not even an Arab, for heaven’s sake,” he scolded himself. He had read columns written from the Eastern world where people had begun claiming that the statue was of “the mightiest and most cruel” Egyptian ruler; someone rather familiar to the Pharaoh who prosecuted Moses.
A “kafir”, they called him.
Percy hesitated then scribbled down the information that was pouring in from all corners of the world.
“Disbeliever,” he translated.
The mother was right. Only a quarter hour into daybreak and the baby was taken in by the Royal Guards. These were men who reported directly to the Pharaoh. They were everywhere and they knew everything.
At first they thought the bundle to be forgotten clothes left behind by a bedouin. Only upon opening it did they realize tthat hey had stumbled upon human flesh–very much alive and hungry.
The Royal Guards were perplexed. Never had they been trained for anything like this. In their confusion, they carried the baby to the Pharaoh.
As fate would have it, the Pharaoh had recently lost all his sons to a war he had waged with a tribe far from home. He had won the battle but lost his sons.
Seeing the baby boy was a balm to all his worries for the fate of the empire. In a rare display of kindness, as selfish as it might be, he openly declared himself to be the father of the boy. His most recent wife, Sarone, gasped in shock yet she was forced to come to terms with this twist of fate.
The child was treated like a prince, for almost all believed him to be one. The Pharaoh noted with satisfaction all the telltale signs of royalty in the child: arrogance, disrespect for people lower than him in the social hierarchy, extravagance, and the almost obsessive inclination towards power.
“He will be the perfect ruler,” he murmured to his wife as they stod on the highest sand dune, watching the boy gallop on a velvety horse and disappear into the shadows of a sunlit horizon.
“Two legs of stone,” grumbled Percy.
“I beg your pardon?” exclaimed the elegantly dressed woman on his right. Her eyes darted to her legs which were primly and daintily clad in the best linen imported only recently from India.
“My apologies, that wasn’t meant for you,” said Percy, suddenly becoming conscious of his surroundings. He noticed the splendidly dressed people twirling around him, the haunting music, the blinding lights and the food. He took in the woman standing by him. Her cheeks were full, rosy, and carefully dabbed with a dash of rogue; there was a glimmer in her left eye, a mole near her perfectly shaped nose.
To his surprise the face turned into another face that had been haunting him, day in and day out. There was that look, the look of knowing you have everything you ever wanted, everything… perhaps even immortality.
“Half sunk, a shattered visage lies”
His name sounded so good, so royal, and so… expensive, even to his own ears. He chortled under the silk covers.
Wait. Who was it that dared speak his name in so careless a fashion? Who was it that slurred on the exquisite syllables, making them sound so ordinary? He jerked off the covers.
There before him stood his father. Ozymandias blinked. This can’t be. The man has been dead for months. Mummified since what, seven days?
“Ozymandias,” the Pharaoh said.
A ghost. It’s a ghost. A hallucination for all I know. It must be the drink I had brought in all the way from the nectarines near the Mongolian orchards. Never again, Ozymandias reminded himself. His father broke into his thoughts.
“You do realize that you now control every inch of what was my empire? The people bow to you, they accept you as their ruler,” said the old man, his voice thinning.
“Yes. I am the supreme ruler,” said Ozymandias, his voice ringing with absolute conviction.
The ghost’s eyes appeared to dim. What is that? Tears? Disgusting. Pathetic, really.
“You also realize that your time here is limited. Just like it has been for those before you, just like it will be it will be for those after you,” he said. The old man’s ghost looked so human that for a moment Ozymandias feared he had returned in flesh.
“Get to the point, old man! You take too much of my time and you know better than anyone that it is suicidal for a man to displease the Pharaoh,” said the young ruler mockingly.
“If I remember correctly, it was I who safeguarded you at a time when you were vulnerable. Had it not been for my kindness you would have been thrown into the Nile!” said the ghost.
“You needed me. The sons you had were killed in the battle. It was I who safeguarded your interests, your positions in the line of bloody men all too glad to become the ruler,” reprimands Ozymandias, getting up to pull back the silk curtains from the windows of his palace apartment. “See my kingdom. See what I have become,” he said to the ghost who shimmered in the sunlight.
“You do not understand…” began the old Pharaoh, defeat and fatigue evident in every syllable.
“I understand everything,” retorted Ozymandias his face bearing a vehement expression. “Who are you to question my place in the world? It is my world now. Not yours. You are dead.” His screams filled the air at dawn, screeching sounds of sheer hatred.
The ghost’s face softened. For a minute Ozymandias was struck by the simple realization that he had never seen his father, let alone a ghost of him, cry before. The shimmering figure opened its mouth to speak but as the Egyptian sun’s glare sharpened, it disappeared into nothingness.
“You are dead,” repeated Ozymandias, his face crumbling not from grief, but rather from anger. “Dead to the world.”
Egypt’s winters knew great cold. The cold was not present in the form of snow; rather it was emitted from within the palace walls which were made of baked bricks and clay of the best kind.
“I want my face all over the tributaries of Nile. How hard is that for you to carry out?” yelled Ozymandias at the four men in front of him. Three of them whimpered in fear and bowed submissively; they were new to this business and all they want was some fresh bread to take home.
“Yes, of course, my lord,” spoke the fourth one. “I am ready to give you my services.”
“I shall have you crucified if you do otherwise,” lashed out Ozymandias, coolly gazing at them.
Still the fourth sculptor stood his ground and met the Pharaoh’s gaze.
“As you desire, my lord,” he declared before exiting the palace grounds. He had a long month ahead of him in which he would find Ozymandias to be the sole occupant of his thoughts.
“I’ll be damned if I am unable to make this work,” he said to himself, realizing how much truth his words held.
Percy was feeling claustrophobic. He had been feeding himself with countless Egyptian tales, myths and beliefs. The mummification was what bothered him most.
“Imagine yourself being eaten by hundreds of hideous beetles and bitten by countless scorpions, Mary!” he exclaimed to his wife.
Mary shuddered, almost dropping her porcelain cutlery at the thought. For the hundredth time that day, she wished those lost ruins had never been found.
“It is ready, my lord,” said the sculptor with a fanatic gleam in his eyes. He looked positively crazy.
“About time,” replied Ozymandias approvingly looking over his shoulder. His voice was like silk, polished over years of a posh upbringing. Few would believe that in reality he had been brought to the castle as a weak, sallow orphan with huge circles under his eyes and stones tied to his stomach to keep away the hunger pangs. Even Ozymandias himself had long since discarded this secret, dismissing it as baseless.
“I wish to see it,” he spoke after an elongated pause.
“Now my lord?” said the sculptor, feigning surprise. He had expected this.
“Yes, now. No matter if it is turning dark. We shall take the steeds. The quicker we reach there, the better,” replied the Pharaoh, a crease appearing on his forehead. Addressing his advisor he said, “Get that Hankshah clan executed. I don’t want them to lay their filthy eyes on my precious statue.”
The look on his face was terrible.
“What an animal,” thought the sculptor, well-aware that voicing his thoughts would get him lit ablaze in the Pharaoh’s wrath. It was rather like blasphemy, he mused, considering how the Pharaoh called himself a god.
“I am your master, therefore I will reward you greatly,” said Ozymandias, addressing the sculptor.
There was no gratitude in that voice. Only pride.
It was in the darkest hours of the night when Percy checked the letters that had arrived at his doorstep. He had been dispatching letters to his Arab friends, particularly those who regarded Egypt as home.
One of the replies to his queries seemed to strike a chord. It was by a former classmate. Aasiyah wrote, “I can only quote the last Apostle of Allah. I hope this helps you in your quest. Peace from my side of the world.
It is reported that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said,
‘The best jihad is (to say) a word of justice before a tyrant monarch.’”
Lingering over the Arabic in her signature, Percy scribbled down a word in his notebook.
“Jihad.” Struggle, he translated.
“Where are you taking me?” demanded Ozymandias.
They had been traveling for hours. Even the steeds were experiencing exhaustion and wished to stop for rest.
“Just a little farther,” replied the sculptor, calm etched onto his face. Underneath the placid exterior, his heart was beating wildly; this was the moment he had worked months for.
“You fool, you said the same hours ago! Drive faster!” Ozymandias spat at him. He felt no fear or anxiety; only anger at the worthless sculptor. The Pharaoh was not known for his patience.
Ozymandias stroked his nose to distract himself as the sculptor bowed in affirmative and urged the steeds forward.
There in the vastness and eternity of the glimmering expanse of the night sky loomed a huge sculpture.
“And on the pedestal these words appear:”
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings,” roared Ozymandias marveling at the wordplay. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Ozymandias’ euphoria knew no bounds. By the light from the burning wood and the full moon, he turned his gaze upwards addressing a God he did not believe in.
“Despair!” he yelled, as if issuing an order. “DESPAIR!”
The sand dunes rebound his voice, casting his echo in all directions. He laughed like a lunatic. This was the greatest achievement yet. He believed that the earth would now remember him just like the heavens above would never forget him.
“I am invincible. Look at me!” called Ozymandias to those who would listen. “I do not show you, except that which I see. Look at me!”
For a heart-stopping moment the sculptor believed that Ozymandias was really a god. He shivered, remembering every curse and each discreet death wish he had directed towards his ruler. He remembered how he spent a year practicing, sculpting Ozymandias’ face to perfection and then smashing the rocks, once they were ready, with glee. He would start with the eyes first. Always the eyes. He remembered and feared.
Yet when the rising sun revealed the wrinkles on the Pharaoh’s face, his sagging limbs, and the obese structure of the man who claimed to be god, the sculptor could do nothing but stare.
“You are human. Only human,” he blurted out.
Ozymandias could not hear him over his screams of victory, of the sweet success he had immersed himself in. His mind’s eye had conjured up people all over the world standing before him on the empty sand dunes that stretched out for miles and bowing to him. Only to him.
“You will die,” the sculptor carried on as if under a spell, “you may have bracelets of gold, all the money in the land, and a dozen women in your bed but you are no god. You have lofty towers of clay, but those too shall fall and turn to dust. Where will you flee then? You claim to have power but you cannot even control the simplest of things, like blades of grass pushing their way through the soil.”
By now Ozymandias had become attentive. His mouth was hanging open. His senses took in everything; the daybreak, the sculpture and the man who made it with blood and sweat standing before him. Everything.
“The real God sends upon you every kind of torment known to man, and yet you do not repent. Floods, locusts, the frogs, vermin and even blood in the waters of Nile. Yet you do not repent. You are right when you say you are not human. You are the devil personified,” said the sculptor, pausing for breath.
Never would he know that he had already taken his last. Ozymandias, rage pouring from every vessel in him, struck the man down with his own sword.
Despite the sculptor’s hopes, Ozymandias was not silenced. Not yet.
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive (stamped on lifeless things)”
At a reunion arranged at a short notice by his university, Percy noticed Aasiyah sitting in a corner, a gaggle of girls surrounding her, discussing the latest fashions from the British Raj in India. Upon seeing Percy, Aasiyah replaced the bookmark on the book she was reading and excused herself from the group.
They walked into the glorious September warmth of the outside world.
“What were you reading?” asked Percy after they had updated each other on their families and work.
“The Qur’an,” replied Aasiyah, smiling.
“Oh. I’ve heard of that. May I have I look?” inquired Percy.
Aasiyah hesitated for a split second. “It’s in Arabic. You wouldn’t understand.”
Percy was not discouraged. “Can you read some of it to me? Translate it, I mean,” he asked very seriously.
“Of course. Any topic in particular?” Aasiyah thumbed her way through the manuscript.
“Does your God speak of the Egyptians?” ventured Percy timidly.
Aasiyah’s face broke into a smile. “A lot.”
“Then I’d like to hear it please,” replied Percy earnestly.
Aasiyah’s voice trembled as she recited; it grew stronger as she got used to the words she believed in drifting across the rose garden they were seated in.
When she closed the book, Percy was in a place far away. Thanking her profusely, he came to a decision. He had heard enough. All that was left to do, he realized, was to write.
“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
As the pause between the quill and paper grew, somewhere from the distance he heard a woman’s gentle voice translate the message of God for him.
“And We cause to overtake them in this world a curse, and on the Day of Resurrection they will be of al-maqbuheen [those who are prevented from receiving Allah’s Mercy or any good; despised or destroyed].” (Qur’an, 28:42)