What’s with the owls?

624—680 ‘Ajib and Gharib

In the epic of ‘Ajib and Gharib, there is no scene more bizarre than the sudden and complete collapse of a city-state, after Gharib steals its idol on Night 674. It bears quoting in its full glory, which is why I did not excerpt it in the recap yesterday.

I have heard, O fortunate king, that the marid carried both Gharib and the idol into the upper air. So much for him, but as for the king, having failed to find the idol when he went in to ask about Gharib, he killed the vizier, as has been recorded, but his troops, seeing what had happened, renounced idolatry, drew their swords and killed him. Then they started to fight one another and after three days of mutual slaughter, only two of them were left. One of these overcame the other and killed him but was then himself killed by boys. The boys then struck out at each other until every last one of them was dead. Following on this, the women and girls rushed out and made for the villages and fortified towns, leaving the city empty except for its owls.

In the tale of the drop of honey (Night 582, see last week’s recap), a triviality escalates upwards, prompting individual murders and then a tribal war. That is darkly amusing and fascinating.

Here, by contrast, I am struck by the way the disaster unfolds down the social hierarchy. The calamity begins when the king is assassinated, which prompts internecine carnage that does away with the soldiers, then the rest of the men.

City of God
City of God

Finally, the boys start killing each other. The obvious modern parallel is Lord of the Flies, but my thoughts turned first to the brilliant City of God (Cidade de Deus, 2002). The gangsters who terrorise the favela are murdered by the young psychopath Lil Zé, who is himself gunned down at the end of the film by a bunch of kids. I think also of the renegade Omar in the HBO series The Wire, who is finally caught out by a child assassin.

Once everyone in this city has died or fled, the detail that only the owls remain has stayed with me. It is such an odd and yet foreboding outcome. I wish I knew the particular symbolism at play here, and I’d love to read a follow-up story about the City of Owls.

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