It is common to think of the geographical East as a mystic and timeless space that slowly succumbed to the inundating forces of modernity beginning in the fifteenth century through colonial encounters with European empires. But the real and material histories written by scholars, dignitaries, ambassadors, and monks, traveling to and from various cities and polities across the Indian Ocean would suggest otherwise. The Indian Ocean existed (and still does!) as a site where the various inhabitants of three different continents traversed vast stretches of unforgiving waters to connect with one another, leading to a rich history of commerce, conflict, and community. The Imam and the Poet centers around a fictional travelogue written by a wandering poet navigating these dynamic networks in the fifteenth century. Beginning his journey at the dawn of Mughal-controlled India and voyaging through bustling port cities in the Gulf of Arabia, he eventually washes up in the middle of a pivotal historical battle in East Africa; on his way encountering an ensemble of merchants, conquerors, pirates, holy men, and a mysteriously prophetic tea-bearer.
The Imam and the Poet
During the Italian conquest of Abyssinia, Mussolini’s soldiers stumbled upon a hidden library from the sixteenth century, which contained a number of irreparably damaged manuscripts and one surviving manuscript secured in a locked wooden chest, which was then taken to Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa in Italy, where it was restored and translated. The manuscript, written in Panjabi and Arabic, describes a conversation between the travelling poet Amir Baba Hussein and the Somali imam and general Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi of the Adal Sultanate. A second document from the same chest that may or may not be part of this manuscript describes Ghazi’s conquest of Abyssinia from the perspective of Hussein. It is indecipherable to academics where and how the conversation between the poet and the Imam was recorded, and if it indeed took place or if it was a fictive invention of an imaginative scholar. Some theories suggest that the author is in fact Hussein himself, as traces of the poet disappear after the Portuguese reconquest of Abyssinia. The manuscript, in its entirety, has been included below:
In the name of God, the Almighty: the travelling poet Amir Baba Hussein was sitting on the steps of the Masjid al-Qiblatayn after the morning prayer when a procession of notables exited the prayer hall. Its leader, the imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, took interest in the visitor and invited him for tea at his home. Upon reaching the Imam’s home the poet gasped at its opulence and extravagance. His mouth watered at the trays of fresh fruit prepared by servants in an outdoor kitchen The Imam al-Ghazi gestured to a plush cushioned seat in the courtyard, woven with gold fibres and patterned with silver crescent moons. It was when the poet and the Imam were seated, and the tea served in small earthen cups, and the fruit, of which there were dates, pomegranates, papaya, and custard apple, placed at their feet, that the Imam asked the poet where he hailed from and how he arrived in the port of Zelia.
“I was born in Lahore, the walled city of Panjab. Some years ago the great emperor Babur captured the city and ascended the throne. I grew up in an estate outside the city walls. When I was a young boy, an Arab traveler took shelter in our home after a long day’s journey, and in the evening he enthralled me with stories of ‘The Lion of the Sea,’ Ahmad ibn Majid; thus began my own obsession with sailing. Unfortunately, there was no sea nearby with which to quench my desire, and I instead became a student of poetry, memorizing and transcribing the works of Farīd al-Dīn Masʿūd Ganj-i-Shakar. Some years after Lahore burned, I was approached by one of Babur’s administrators, who wished for me to sail West. There were rumors that an Islamic caliphate had been lost amid the Christian nations of Europe, and when threatened with extinction, its ruler led an exodus of Mussalmaan to a new World at the edges of the Earth. Babur, wanting to eclipse the Spanish Crown’s conquest of Hispaniola with a discovery of his own, tasked me with finding this lost nation. I thanked God for this miracle, and after the end of Ramadan made my preparations and left.”
The Imam was accustomed to strangers in the port city of Zelia, but something of this stranger’s disposition intrigued him. He asked the poet if he would narrate the story of his journey, for his own enjoyment. The poet, whose ship had been looted by pirates, and who had found himself stranded on the shores of East Africa, felt obligated to comply with the authority’s request.
“We left Lahore and travelled south following the course of the Indus river. We were a procession of five: three soldiers, a navigator, and myself. We crossed through Gujarat, to the city of Surat, where the Ahmedabad king was proposing that a castle be built on the shores of the Tapti river, to defend against frequent and devastating Portuguese raids. The city had been rebuilt after having been destroyed by the Portuguese only years prior, which no traveler would suspect: the sprawling bamboo thatched huts and crooked streets suggested a certain exclusion from the linear flow of time. On the riverbanks I noticed hospital attended by Jains, but instead of human patients, these accepted a variety of beasts, including horses and cows. I spoke to a Jain who attended one such hospital, and suggested that they divert resources to help the city’s poor, who were dying from disease and malnutrition. The Jain, however, maintained that all lives are sacred, and thus must be protected without prejudice, and to this I said ‘unto you your religion, and unto me my religion,’ and boarded the ship that had been hired for our journey.”
Here the Imam interrupted the poet and asked him his opinion of the Portuguese. The poet cautiously expressed his disapproval of their methods, though secretly he considered them savages; the stories of the explorer De Gama’s brutal massacre of migrating hajjis had reached as far north as Punjab. ‘Brilliant seafarers,’ added the imam. ‘The Portuguese are allied with the Abyssinians,’ the poet probed. ‘It is wise to respect the virtues of one’s enemies,’ the Imam retorted. He gestured for the poet to continue.
“We struck misfortune almost immediately. From Surat we boarded a small sailing ship arranged for us and set off to the West, towards Basra. Four days into our journey our navigator observed dark clouds approaching from the Southwest. We could either turn back, or press on and hope we reached shelter at ██████ before the storm arrived. Our navigator advised that we head back East, but I, in my foolhardiness and naiveté, decided to press on.
“A day later the storm overtook us. The dense fog and cold rain made it impossible to keep our heading. For seven bitter days our crew fought the storm: the rain turned to hail and battered at our bodies; the waves were as tall as the Himalayan mountains; and the gust of winds were so strong that I thought I saw the Angel Gabriel furiously flapping his wings at our humble vessel, sealing our fate. On the eighth day, a bolt of lightning struck our mast as I prayed to God for his mercy, and our ship capsized. I clung onto a piece of the hull and was tossed around by the waves and the wind for an amount of time that felt like eternity. As I made peace with my own demise, the storm lifted, and with it the fog, and I could make out not too far from me the glorious sight of land. I began swimming in its direction when I crossed paths with a fishing vessel. The captain was generous enough to clothe me in dry trousers and take me to the port of Gwadar, where I disembarked. My legs shook uncontrollably, for I was on dry land for the first time in the life God had graciously bestowed upon me.
“In Gwadar I was able to find work as a translator for the Balochi king. Though I had lost my navigator and military entourage, I had no desire to end my quest. After a month I was able to amass enough funds to hire a ship to Muscat. On the second day of our journey the captain discovered a stowaway onboard, a young dark-skinned boy of around thirteen years of age, who begged us to let him continue with us. I saw in the boy the same thirst for the sea I had at his age and asked the captain to secure his safety. The boy’s name was Sinbad. I promised him he would accompany me on all my voyages.”
The imam asked what happened to the boy. The poet paused and placed his teacup down. He shook his head. After an appropriate amount of time, the Imam asked him to continue.
“I remember the light in Sinbad’s eyes when he first beheld the jewel that is Muscat, at the time under rule of Azdi Nabahinah clan. His enthusiasm was matched by that of the city, which was still celebrating an earlier victory over Portuguese conquistadors. Arriving at an inn, I found that its keeper did not share the city’s high spirits. ‘You are visitors to this city,’ he warned, ‘flee before you are witnesses to unspeakable horrors’. Curious, I asked him to explain further. ‘I have received word that the Portuguese armada has regrouped after its earlier defeat. They are planning to attack the city in a week’s time!’ ‘This city has defended itself before,’ I said, ‘by the grace of God, it will defeat the invaders.’ Wanting to reassure him further, I added: ‘These Portuguese are the most primitive of people. I have heard they do not even wash themselves after defecating.’ ‘These Portuguese are pale savages,’ retorted the innkeeper, ‘their uncleanliness is only matched by their bloodlust!’
“Sinbad and I stayed at an inn that night, and the next night we began looking for work. We wandered around the city, I myself looking for a library or a monastery where I could work as a scribe, and a willing fisherman who would employ Sinbad. In the afternoon we stopped for the Friday prayers at a local mosque. Afterwards, we stopped at a tea bearer’s stall at the marketplace. ‘You are not merchants nor seasoned travelers,’ the tea bearer observed after serving us. ‘What has brought you to our port?’ ‘A thirst for adventure!’ Sinbad blurted out. ‘Adventure is a powerful motivator,’ replied the tea-bearer, ‘but it should be tempered with wisdom and foresight.’ ‘Do you fear the Portuguese invasion?’ I asked. ‘Besides our fretful innkeeper, everyone else seems to still be celebrating the city’s earlier victory.’ He replied: ‘A few days ago, when the news of the invasion broke, I had a dream. In my dream I saw the Almighty punishing those seafaring scoundrels. At the height of their might, God will destroy the seat of their empire, with an earthquake ten times more powerful than the one that sealed the fates of the people of Thamud; an earthquake that will cause any Believer to tremble and fear that the Day of Judgement is upon him. I woke up from this dream in a cold sweat, but once I accepted both my own fate and that of the invaders, I was at peace.'
“After this enlightening encounter myself and Sinbad decided it would be wise to leave Muscat before any harm could befall us, and so we secured passage a ship which wouldn’t leave until next week. I spent my remaining days in Muscat teaching Sinbad to read and write, while suppressing my anxieties concerning our dwindling coffers. We were, however, too late in making our arrangements, and on our fifth day in Muscat I was awoken to the sound of thunder.
“Sinbad and I made our way to the streets, where we saw the sky glowing red. Scrambling to find higher ground, we scaled the walls of a nearby building, and from our vantage point we observed that the harbor was blocked by seven Portuguese ships, raining fire down on the city without impunity. Two rowboats of Portuguese soldiers were making landfall as we watched. I noticed, however, a small sailing boat, only large enough for two people, perched at the edge of the harbor, near a gap in the Portuguese blockade. We scrambled off the rooftop and ran to it, I clutching Sinbad’s small hand in my own, fighting against the tide of the city’s residents fleeing to the mountains. We reached the boat, and Sinbad, to my astonishment, deftly rigged the sails, and we maneuvered through a gap between two Portuguese caravels and reached open water without harm. Behind us, the sky glowed red as Muscat burned.”
The poet paused. ‘Your companion knew how to rig the sails’ said the Imam, his tone suggesting a question rather than a statement. The poet contemplated his words. ‘In times of war,’ he said, ‘we sometimes exhibit the most remarkable qualities.’ The Imam agreed. He gestured for the poet to continue.
“We had few supplies on our small vessel, so we knew we had to make landfall soon. I was determined to reach the port of Aden, which I figured would be a few days’ journey. Sinbad’s knowledge of sailing, as quickly as it had manifested, seemed to disappear entirely, and for two days we sat almost entirely still in view of a small island.
“On the third day, I noticed a small speck growing larger on the horizon and dismissed it as a product of my growing delirium. I was very much mistaken, however, as the speck grew into a boat, and the boat into a mighty Abyssinian sailing ship, flying sails embossed with red lions. It seemed the ship would plow right through us, but as it neared our boat, it slowed and dropped anchor. Two soldiers descended on our vessel and captured us. They chained us to the deck of the ship, where the captain interrogated us. Even as I attempted to explain the nature of our travels, he cut me off. ‘This one seems weak,’ he laughed, smacking the flabby underside of my arms with the flat side of his blade. ‘But this one will fetch a formidable price,’ he gleefully declared, bringing the pointed tip of his rapier to Sinbad’s throat. I struggled, fearful of the uncertain fate the captain had decreed for him, but as I did so two soldiers unchained me and cast me into the ocean. I wept as the ship hoisted its anchor and set sail, with Sinbad captive onboard; my tears and the ocean became one.
‘So, the boy is an Abyssinian slave,’ interrupted the Imam. ‘Fret not, he may still be alive.’ ‘I am not so much tormented with the possibility that he has gone from this world, as much as I am afraid that he is lost to me forever,’ the poet replied. ‘The slave trade of the Arabs has plagued the Earth for centuries. Few escape its iron clutches.’ The Imam’s face hardened. He asked the poet to continue.
“I swam to the island, and from there boarded a small merchants’ vessel that took me to the mainland. Slowly I made my way to Aden, through a myriad of journeys on camelback and on hired ships. I had made my resolve to find Sinbad, even if it meant that I spent my dying breath searching for him.
“I finally reached Aden on a trading vessel of whose captain I had indebted myself to, as I had not a single rupee to my name. As we approached Aden, I saw in its harbor a fleet of a kind of ship I had never seen before, with angular red sails and a sleek hull. As we drew near, I could make out the features of some of sailors onboard them, whose slanted eyes and manner of costume revealed the fleet’s royal Chinese origins. The city was certainly the biggest and busiest metropolis I’d ever set foot in. Around the harbor, merchants from Africa, India, China, and Egypt peddled their wares and unloaded their ships. As God willed, I soon found work with a Gujarati merchant, who employed me to document his impressive inventory of spices, drugs, silks, musk, benzoin, porcelaine, and cotton. After some months the merchant entrusted me to watch over his warehouse while he made a return journey to Gujarat. I asked him, if he could, to send a letter north to Punjab, in which I wrote the extent of my travels for the eyes of Babur.
“I lived in Aden, working for the merchant, for two years. After those two years I began accompanying the merchant on his journeys to Gujarat, Basra, and Portuguese Muscat, and with him amassed a substantial amount of wealth. On a return journey to Aden, the merchant fell ill, and his condition worsened rapidly. The sailors and I, who were all very loyal to him, made haste in an attempt to reach a doctor in Aden, but our efforts to do so were in vain. When we were only a fortnights journey from Aden, the merchant called me into his bedchamber, where he said in no uncertain terms that he was entrusting me with his fortune, his ship, and his crew, as he had no sons of his own and had begun to think of me as his heir. I wept beside the merchant as he drew his final breaths, and upon reaching Aden, arranged a burial befitting of a king.
“With the merchant’s fortune and ship, I had no obstacles to fulfil the promise I’d made years earlier to free Sinbad. After making some preparations, we departed from Aden and sailed East. I had hired an expert navigator, who had charted our course around the horn of Africa, up its Western coast, and to Iberia. My spirits were high, but that was all to change.
“Not more than a day after we left, my crew noticed an entire fleet of Yemeni pirates heading in our direction. We prepared to evade them, but their ships were faster and outnumbered our own. I readied my men for battle, but the onslaught of flaming arrows and iron javelins tore my ship to shreds. The pirates boarded my ship, slaughtered my entire crew, and singled me out as its captain. They chained me to my own ship-mast, having me watch as they unloaded my goods, taunting me the whole while. Finally, before leaving me stranded, the pirates scuttled my ship.
“I struggled against my bonds as my ship sank, and as the water reached my nostrils, managed to free myself. Once again, I found myself clinging to a piece of the hull, adrift in the waves. I was able to salvage enough wood to lash together a makeshift raft. The wind carried me East, to the shores Somalia, and I made landfall two kilometers Southeast of Zelia. I sat on the steps of the mosque and contemplated begging for food, when you found me, O great Imam, and brought me here.”
The imam, having listened to the end of the poet’s story, sat silently. Night had fallen, and the courtyard was suddenly unbearably chilly. ‘Stay with me,’ offered the imam, ‘and tomorrow I will tell you something that may interest you.’
The kind and generous Imam Ahmad had his servants direct me to a bedchamber where I would spend the night. The next morning, after I was served a breakfast of goats’ milk, he summoned me to his study. ‘I possess knowledge that may be of great importance to you,’ he said to me. I asked him to divulge. ‘A week ago, some scouts of mine observed a ship making port at Massawa, flying sails embossed with red lions,’ he explained, ‘they reported that the Abyssinian Emperor Dawit II met with the captain of the ship, and that the slavers presented a dark-skinned boy to the Emperor.’
This must be Sinbad, I thought. I could see he had made that deduction as well. The Imam then explained the nature of his quarrel with the Abyssinians: he spoke of their aggressive tendencies, their persecution of Mussalmaan, and how, for the security of the Adal Sultanate, they needed to be brought under his rule. If I joined him, he said, he would assist me in freeing Sinbad. I at once accepted his offer.
For a year I trained with Imam Ahmad’s soldiers at the barracks outside the capital city of Harar. During the month of Dhu al-Hijja we rode to a valley between Mount Amba Alagi and Lake Hashengi. It was here we caught our first sight of the Abyssinian forces standing in ranked file, the silver tips of their muskets glistening in the afternoon sun. We had been warned the Abyssinians had been supplied cannons by the infidel nations to the West, but I was not fearful as my friend the Imam had procured his own guns and artillery after negotiating with the Ottomans. Imam Ahmed assembled the Mussalmaan at the top of a nearby hill. ‘We fight in the name of God,’ he shouted, galloping amongst his men, and the Mussalmaan, who had come together from seven different tribes, responded: ‘God is great!’
We descended on our enemy, who began firing their cannon towards us. None can describe the savagery of this device; as one charged it, the hairs on the back of the neck would stand up, then the ground would erupt with a clap of thunder, sending debris into the air and killing both horse and man. While the muskets were exceptionally dangerous from afar, once we got closer the skilled Muslim swordsmen quickly overwhelmed them. Though I tried, I could not locate Sinbad on the battlefield. Then, without warning, our banners began retreating, and the Mussalmaan with them. I rode ahead to find that the Imam had been shot in the leg. We regrouped on the far side of the river, where we made camp while waiting for reinforcements.
Two weeks later, an infantry square of Portuguese soldiers, led by general Cristóvão da Gama, attacked our camp. We fought valiantly, and it seemed victory was upon us as the Portuguese’s stiff uniforms and poor hygiene hindered their offence, but an explosion of gunpowder sent our horses into a panic, and in the resultant chaos, we retreated once again.
As the rainy season approached, we received news that the Eritrean King Yeshaq had allied himself with the Abyssinians, increasing the size of their coalition by threefold. We observed the enemy make their camp at Wofla, and then we did the same at Mount Zobil. A week after we made our camp, I went to see Imam Ahmed at his tent. He was in deep contemplation. I said: ‘have you formulated your next move?’ He replied, slowly: ‘The account you gave me the day we met has convinced me that only true unity among those who Believe will grant us victory. We must call on our fellow Mussalmaan to help us prevail.’ That night the Imam sent couriers north to Arabia and Turkey, asking for assistance from the Caliphates in those regions. In the coming months, soldiers from those lands joined our own, until the Imam possessed a formidable and intimidating army, capable of levelling an entire continent.
The day after Eid al-Fitr corresponded with the first rays of sunlight bursting out from behind rainclouds, which had lightened after relieving their load. The Imam quickly assembled the Mussalmaan outside the infidel camp, and after a rousing speech, we attacked. The Mussalmaan, complete with two thousand Arabian musketeers and one thousand Ottoman soldiers, quickly overwhelmed the infidels. After killing several enemy soldiers, I witnessed Sinbad, and it could be none other than Sinbad, decapitate three Muslims in one swift stroke of his sword, only two dozen meters from where I was standing on the battlefield. I was astonished. A group of Ottoman soldiers began attacking him I stopped them, wounding two and killing a third. ‘Sinbad!’ I shouted hoarsely at him, ‘do you not remember your old benefactor!’ But I was quickly overtaken by the ceaseless onslaught of the Mussalmaan and lost sight of him.
Only moments later we captured the infidel da Gama, who had been badly wounded, and some of his men. I desperately looked among the men we had taken prisoner, hoping one of them was Sinbad. God granted my wish, and I found Sinbad, now a man, bound and trussed with da Gama himself. Imam Ahmad approached da Gama, offering mercy in exchange for his conversion to Islam. Da Gama refused, spitting at the Imam’s feet and declaring him to be the devil, and with one swift stroke of the Imam’s sword, was executed in front of his men. The soldiers were given the same offer, and I saw Sinbad refuse it.
‘Stop!’ I commanded to the Muslim who had drawn his blade against Sinbad. I knelt before him. ‘Do you know who I am?’ I asked him. ‘A barbarous heretical dog!’ he spat back at me. I explained, slowly, that I was the man who had advocated for his safety on the ship leaving Gwadar, taught him to read in Muscat, and fled with him when the city fell. In a moment he became peaceable, his eyes sparkling with recognition. ‘You abandoned me so many years ago,’ he spoke hoarsely, his eyes welling with tears. ‘Only because I had to,’ I replied, my own eyes moistening. We embraced; two men, together, once again.
Sinbad and I lived together in Axum, in northeast Abyssinia, for many years. I married a local girl there, and our wedding was officiated by my friend the Imam. In those years I sought to impart all the knowledge I knew to Sinbad. Sinbad too married and fathered several children.
Then, without warning, the city came under attack. The next-in-line-to-the-throne, Gelawdewos, had crowned himself the true King of Abyssinia and allied himself with the infidel nations to the East. Sinbad and I joined Imam Ahmad’s soldiers at Lake Tana, where we valiantly defended ourselves against the Abyssinian onslaught, but a single musket-man broke our ranks and fatally shot the Imam. I knelt by his side as he drew his dying breaths while around us the Muslim soldiers haphazardly retreated. Then, in the chaos, Sinbad too was shot in the heart. I wept silently to myself as I threw his body onto my horse and fled the battlefield. I rode as hard as I could to Axum, but when I arrived our home had been leveled by Abyssinian soldiers, and our wives and children were gone. I buried Sinbad in an orchard outside Axum, where I also held a ceremony for both our families.
After I had buried Sinbad and said my prayers, I rode East, back to Zelia. I resolved, for the first time, to return to Lahore.
 Referring to the mosque in Somalia, not the more popular mosque of the same name in Medina.
 Since antiquity, the port city of Zelia has been a key site of trade conducted through the Indian Ocean. Its maritime significance has waned, however, in the modern era.
 The author of the manuscript has added a hastily scrawled note here that since the imam and the poet shared no common language, save a few Arabic phrases, both parties utilized a wide variety of gestures and crudely drawn symbols to communicate.
 The manuscript is corrupted at this point. Scholars have ascertained that the location the poet Hussein refers to is the Gulf of Oman.
 No evidence has been found to suggest the anonymous tea-bearer’s dream is a postscript added after the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake
 The island of Masirah, twenty-five kilometers from the Omani coast
 A distinction is to be made between the narrative up to this point and hereafter. The manuscript was found in two parts: the first, written in Punjabi, has been carbon-dated by a group of technicians at MIT as from the fourteenth century, and is framed as a conversation between the Punjabi poet and the Somali imam; the second is written in Arabic script, is dated fifteen years after the first, and is a first-person account from the perspective of the poet Hussein.
 Meaning Muslim. The author continually refers to al-Ghazi’s forces as "the Muslims", as opposed to the Christian Abyssinians and Portuguese.
 River Zilu Shet’ in Ethiopia
 In the Portuguese soldier and writer Miguel de Castanhoso’s account of the battle, he boasts that if the Portuguese soldiers had but one hundred more horses, they could have eradicated the Muslim soldiers and declared a decisive victory for Christian Abyssinia. (Whiteway, Richard. The Portuguese expedition to Abyssinia in 1541-1543 as narrated by Castanhoso, p 52.)
 The original manuscript contained a ledger that detailed transfers of wealth and leasing agreements between the Ottomans and the Adal Sultanate. A second, hastily scrawled ledger describes similar financial agreements between Eritrea, Portugal, and Abyssinia. How these two ledgers ended up in the same document still perplexes scholars.