LOS JARDINES SECRETOS DE MOGADOR
A Fragment of the Book.
Translated by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan
Paradise in a Box
Many inhabitants of Mogador earn a living from the art of woodcarving, especially using the wood of the fragrant thuya tree whose roots are like the deformed fingers of an immense hand plunged into the dunes. A well-known legend in Mogador talks about the origin of the thuya groves which surround the city, and also mentions this craft of rough hands, forever scented by this wood. I was fortunate to hear this garden story on the open air terrace of the Taros Café. And just as it was told to me, I tell it again.
The very sages and architects who designed and constructed the famous labyrinth, in which perhaps Abenjacán el Bojarí died (according to a respected halaiquí, a wise, blind storyteller who dreamed about tigers and mirrors), later received the charge from their king to build a perfect garden. They drew up a plan which followed precisely the sacred descriptions of the supreme model of all gardens: paradise. First, they established four classic sections of diverse vegetation, each on a different level, clearly separated by channels of running water symbolizing the four sacred rivers: one of water, another of milk, one of honey, and another of purified wine. They incorporated infinite displays of water which sang at the foot of the pomegranate trees, along the corridors of oil palms and date palms, and amidst the wild henna bushes. They erected pavilions, patios, and wide pathways which encouraged relaxation, contemplation, and encounters. And these were designed and laid out in such a way that it would always be difficult to tell if one were inside or outside them.
They also chose a gardener. After searching far and wide, a man was found among the artisans of Mogador who seemed in his life and work to be a lover of perfection and nature. He was also patient, intelligent, and bold. He worked with the roots of the thuya tree, native to Mogador, making furniture and objects which amazed everyone. In order to make him not only a gardener, but the best of all, each of the three wise architects touched his head ceremoniously, bestowing their own dominant passion upon him like an extraordinary inheritance. And so, while he continued to enjoy his previous qualities, the new gardener became possessed by three great passions: the first, a great hedonist, transferred his excessive interest in flowers to him; the second, the most skillful, infused him with the pleasure of working tirelessly with his hands; and the third, the holiest and most domineering of the three, transmitted his incredible passion for geometry, assuming as well that because of its perfection, it was without a doubt, the ultimate manifestation of God .
Their finest work completed, the wise architects, each more than one hundred years old, could retire to die peacefully in their hometown, far beyond the Sahara, a distant place which was inaccessible without magic, and whose soil was so full of powers that everything was built of clay, but endured as if it were made of stone.
For nine years the gardener cultivated his garden with patience and success, achieving amazing results. His flowers were recognized around the world as the most beautiful of every species. The required cycles for the fruit trees to reach their peak had been completed in exactly nine years with great success. Moreover, every corner of his garden was a place of unexpected repose which offered visitors a feeling of the infinite because of its daring and subtle geometric composition.
That spring his happiness was as deep-rooted as the splendor of his garden throughout the summer. And his happiness endured as long as the intense green of the leaves.
But in the autumn, a cloud of sadness crept into his days little by little, accompanied by a widespread dissatisfaction. He realized his garden was far from perfect.
And so he began projects which emphasized the geometry of bushes, rows of trees, and cupolas formed by their intertwined branches. Into the long channels of running water, he inserted breaks in the form of a labyrinth.
Every day he reconfigured the plants and structures in his garden, arranging them in more obvious geometric patterns. He dreamed about abstract forms which sprouted from each other like fantastic plants, regenerating themselves according to a perfect equation. But awakening lead only to disappointment. He became exasperated by the unwillingness of certain flowers to resemble the geometric flower of his dreams.
One day he cut down all the flowers. The king was away on a trip and no one else could stop him. The garden was his kingdom within the kingdom. And the king’s journey would last at least one year.
Another day he chopped all the tree trunks, converting them into octagonal columns. With the thousands of meters of stripped bark and wood, he ordered that a wall be interwoven to enclose his garden completely. Thus he blocked it off from the view of the scandalized courtesans. Neither he nor his assistants left the garden for months. The orchard gave them plenty to eat. The white-tailed deer and the striped rabbits, which had made the place famous, also disappeared because of the nutritional needs of that small battalion of gardeners who took turns working day and night.
For nine months there was no silence or rest inside the woven wall. One day nothing could be heard and everyone in the kingdom became anxious. Rumors spread about what had happened. Some swore that everyone had committed suicide, or that they had given up their bodies as fertilizer for the plants, or that the crazed gardener had buried everything, convinced that the trees would grow in the opposite direction--downward.
One day, without any notice, the king entered his city. He had returned earlier because of the alarming messages about the mental state of his cherished gardener, which for the past few months had been waiting for him in each new place he arrived. He imagined that his garden would be burned to the ground and that his gardener would be hanging from some branch. After presiding over an immense public celebration for his return, the king summoned the geometric gardener. He welcomed the king back and while he greeted him, his excitement grew proportionately until he could wait no longer and said that he had a surprise for him, that at last his garden was perfect.
The king felt more at ease and decided that all the rumors about his gardener were the result of envy in the court. This was not the first time this had happened. The gardener was fine and was taking care of the garden with his usual enthusiasm, like someone possessed by the life of his plants.
As they walked together toward the closest of the twenty seven gates in the garden wall, the king spoke with amazement about the gardens he had seen on his journey.
“But do not worry, I have no doubts, you remain the best gardener in the world. In spite of all the efforts made by others, not even the most marvelous garden I have seen comes remotely close to ours.”
When they arrived at the gate which the king had never seen closed, the gardener delivered a numerical password and one of his assistants allowed them to enter. The king nearly fainted upon seeing his garden suddenly reduced to a heap of plants, half-uprooted and torn to shreds. An arid reserve with chaotic mountains of wood piles.
“What happened to my garden? This is what you call a perfect garden? There is nothing here but desolation and destruction.”
“What was here before was barely a sketch of your perfect garden. It only served to become what you will now see.”
The geometric gardener gave an order by clapping his hands and five assistants appeared carrying a beautiful cubed box made of different precious woods incrusted one within the other, an art form known today as taracea, or marquetry.
“It smells like cedar. Did you cut down my favorite cedar trees? Did you chop up my cedars, the arz trees from the Atlas mountains I had transplanted here, just to make a simple box?”
“It’s not a simple box. The geometric pattern on which it is based is the precise design of the most beautiful garden in the world. All of its proportions are exact. Paradise must be like this. It is a perfect object, the image not only of paradise, but also of God. The main frame had to be made of cedar from the Atlas mountains, or arz, because it is the only wood which takes many years, sometimes centuries, to understand that it has been cut, that it has been separated from its mother and has been given freedom. Its soul stays green and fresh for decades. Also, the fragrance of cedar contains the “essence of happiness.” Anyone who suffers from anxieties in his heart need only sink his nose into a box made of this wood to be happy again. Arz cedar is used in the public baths, the hammam, because it is not weakened or deformed by humidity and easily resists changes in temperature. Nor does it let itself be attacked by plagues of insects as do other trees which like to be loved to the point they allow themselves to be consumed.
Its only imperfection occurs when it is rooted in the earth, because under its influence, it has the false impression of living on its own, out of control, and becomes deformed in strange and irreparable ways. Undoubtedly, its best form of life, its greatest expression, is seen in the impeccable geometry of a cube with lines of other woods inlaid at precise distances, thus revealing its exact proportions and multiplying the image of its perfection. This marquetry box is, my king, the enhanced synthesis of your garden. The perfect expression of nature. It is the tree, not reduced, but elevated to the purest geometry possible.
The king took the box in his hands, opened it, felt a burst of balsamic fragrance inundate his face, and smiled profusely.
The gardener was pleased that he had convinced him. All of his efforts had paid off. Now even the king would recognize that the garden of all gardens was contained within that box.
But the king had smiled because he finally decided what to do with that stubborn gardener possessed by a geometric delirium.
“You arrogant man, you were a master, a remarkable maalem, a respected artisan, and that was not enough. You believed you were God and for this you will go to hell. Today, before the sun sets, I will place your ashes in this box.”
And they say it was from that passion for gardening that the art of taracea was born, the art of inlaid wood which spread from Mogador throughout the world.
But they also say that after a few months, from the little mound of ashes sprouted a beautiful and noble plant. Not an Atlas cedar, an arz, as they expected in the court, but rather a Mogadorian thuya, like those surrounding the city to the northwest, anchored in the dunes which used to invade the city with certain winds.
Taking leave of Mogador by the dirt road which goes to the port of El-Jadida (the ancient Mazagán), one gets the feeling of sailing across a green sea. The thuyas are low enough to see their brilliant treetops ripple like a wave that, because of the wind, never seems to stay still. They say the wind is the spirit of the perfect gardener, imprisoned in the natural imperfection of that forest from which he keeps trying to escape.
Let me resuscitate in your dunes and anchor them with my roots. Let me smell in your perfect box everything about you which delights me. Let me feel you incrust me with all your woods. Let me be the proud prisoner of all your movements. Let me admire you as if a thousand forests and seas and deserts had been invested in the iridescent perfection of your beauty.