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Testimony of the Mad Arab

(The following is a post by Muhannad Salhi, Arab World Specialist, Near East Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division.)

“That is not dead which can eternal lie.
And with strange aeons even death may die.”

H.P. Lovecraft

It had been a drab, wet day, the unabating rain could be heard loudly tap-tap-tapping on the Library dome under which our reading room lies. As I sat there in my office, contemplating the inevitable drenching the rain seemed to assure on my walk to the Metro, my phone rang, summoning me to our reading room to assist some patrons. A small group of young people, they were interested in seeing one of our rare items that was housed securely in our Cage. They had already filled out the needed forms and I was promptly on my way to retrieve it for them, casually glancing at a title I was not sure I had ever seen before. I haplessly searched and searched for it, beginning to feel woefully disheartened, when I finally saw the dusty volume hidden in one of the far, dark recesses of the cage where it had obviously lain, untouched, for a good number of years, not to say decades, until it was finally requested by them. As I started on my way back to the reading room, I glanced at the book itself and began to experience this eerily strange feeling. The title was Arabic, but not immediately comprehensible, the author’s name also sounded somewhat Arab, but yet not exactly so. Still preoccupied with the rain and the fact that I had forgotten my umbrella, I dutifully handed a young man the book and was about to leave, when I noticed a helpless look in their eyes that seemed to beg for assistance.

Abdul Alhazred, “Al azif (the Necronomicon),” Philadelphia, Owlswick Press, 1973. Title page. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

“Can I help you with this?” I asked

“Yes, please,” one of them replied, “can you give us some information about it?”

I sat down and began to peruse the book, startled to see the bizarre script in which it was written.  It was not like anything I had ever seen before. I agonized over it, desperately trying to make out words in Arabic, but any that I thought I could see were merely pathetic guesses.

“Is it in Arabic?” another one asked, “can you read it?”

It certainly was not in any Arabic script I had ever seen, but my curiosity was piqued.

“I don’t believe so,” I replied, desperately trying to hide the fact that the script had simply stumped me. “The author, Alhazred,” I began, “that sounds Arab, but I can’t say for certain. The title too, “Al azif,” I believe is an Arabic word, can it mean the ‘instrumentalization’ or ‘singing’?” I said, practically to myself, as it was probably becoming painfully obvious from the expression on my face that I was clearly perplexed, “or… is it the singing of the Jinn, the howling of demons?!”

Then suddenly, as though struck by a bolt of lightning, it all just came to me.

“Why, why, this is the Testimony of the Mad Arab!” I blurted out.

“Mad Arab?” one of them asked, “who is that exactly?”

“Well, you see, his name was Abdul Alhazred, a poet who lived in San’a, Yemen, in the early 7th century AD during the Umayyad Caliphate. While in San’a, he commits the unforgivable transgression, a malefaction as old as the hills—he has a tryst with the Emir’s daughter. Upon finding this out, the Emir, blind with rage, ordered him beaten within inches of his life and driven out to certain death into al-Rub’ al-Khali—the Empty Quarter—a crimson desert where nothing lives nor grows. In this desolation, the half-crazed Alhazred is visited by demonic entities who tear his body apart and then put it back together…”

“To…tore his body apart?” one of them asked.

Yog Sothoth. Dunwich Horror, no.4, February 2, 2012. Library of Congress Serial & Government Publications Division.

Yog Sothoth. Conan, no. 152, 1988. Library of Congress Serial & Government Publications Division.

“Yes, and put it back together,” I continued, “they then make him renounce Islam and worship the dark deities of Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, known as the ‘Old Ones.’ Yog-Sothoth, a shadowy cataclysmic entity, is believed to be capable of bestowing all manner of secret knowledge for which he demands sacrifice or eternal servitude. Alhazred is subsequently led to the ancient ruins of Babylon, from whence he visits the “subterranean secrets” in Memphis, finally settling in Damascus where he writes his book “Al azif” before his sudden and mysterious death or disappearance in 738.”

“Death or disappearance?”

“It is all very mysterious,” I continued, “according to the 13th century biographer, Ibn Khallikan, he was captured and devoured by an invisible monster in broad daylight, as witnesses, frozen with fear, simply watched.”

At this point it was becoming clear both to myself and my visitors, by the speed with which I was relating all this information, that someone or something appeared to be speaking through me, bestowing upon me knowledge I did not hitherto possess.

“So, what happens to the book? Is this it?” another asked, haunted by the tale so far.

“Well in the years to come, “Al azif” began to secretly circulate among the philosophers of the age. In 950, it was translated to Greek by Theodorus Philetas, a scholar from Constantinople, who gave it the title ‘Necronomicon’…”

“The Necronomicon?” this seemed to ring a bell with my captive audience, “yes that is exactly what we thought, why we wanted to see it!”

“The Black Book,” I stated, “and after a century of daring experimentation with its spells and incantations had resulted in horrific and terrible effects, it was banned and burned by the Patriarch Michael in 1050. After this attempt at suppressing it, the book was only known to the world through rumor, that is, until the Danish scholar, Olaus Wormius, translated it from Greek to Latin in 1228. In 1232, shortly following its Latin translation, the book was once again banned by Pope Gregory in both Greek and Latin translations; but this, as is often the case with banned books, only drew more attention to it. Editions of it were subsequently printed in Latin in Germany in the 15th century and in Spain in the 17th century; a Greek translation was also printed in the first half of the 16th century. Finally, the renowned Elizabethan magician, John Dee, did his own translation into English, but since this latter version was never printed, only fragments of it are said to have survived.”

“So, the book is available in Latin and Greek?” another inquired

“It is said that a 15th century edition is locked up in the British Museum, and other 17th century editions are held at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the Widener Library at Harvard, the library of Miskatonic University at Arkham and in the library of the University of Buenos Aires.  Another was apparently acquired by a university in San Francisco in the 20th century, but the entire university was destroyed shortly afterwards. There are also rumors that a copy exists in the collection of a famous American millionaire. As for the Greek edition, it is said that the last known copy was burned along with its owner and his library in Salem in 1692. They say that anyone who dares read the book will almost certainly meet with a tragic end.”

“What about the Arabic version, is this it?”

“No, no, the Arabic version has long been lost, this is in the original Duriac!”

Abdul Alhazred, “Al azif (the Necronomicon),” Philadelphia, Owlswick Press, 1973. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Abdul Alhazred, “Al azif (the Necronomicon),” Philadelphia, Owlswick Press, 1973. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

“Duriac?  What’s Duriac?”

“It is the ancient language from which the Arabic edition was initially copied.” Here, I paused for a second to take a good look at the horrified faces of my “audience.”

“Have any of you guys heard of H.P. Lovecraft?” I inquired, “or Richard Chambers? Or indeed have you seen movies like the Evil Dead or say, Army of Darkness? Comics perhaps?”

“Wait, you aren’t saying this is all fictional?” one of them asked angrily, “what about Duriac?”

“ALL fiction,” I insisted, “there is no such language, no such story, it is essentially wholly the fruits of Lovecraft’s imagination!” Suddenly, without any rhyme or reason, I was seized by a fierce, uncontrollable fit of maniacal laughter, so loud it could be heard violently bellowing all the way down the hall and perhaps beyond. When I finally managed to control myself a little, I realized that the group had already hurried out of our reading room, if not the Library itself.

Thus, ends the testimony of the Mad Arab.

It should be noted that all this information is taken from the works of H.P. Lovecraft, while some names depict real, historical figures, none of the information has any basis except in the works of H.P. Lovecraft and others who later adopted and adapted the story. The Library of Congress has all the complete works of H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Chambers, and, aside from the present “work”, various versions, editions, and studies of the fictious “Necronomicon” itself, in addition to comics, sound recordings, and films on or relating to the topic.

Additional Readings:

For those interested in the work of the famous biographer Ibn Khallikān (1211-1282) referenced here in the blog, the following is his famous “Book of Biographies,” in the original and in translation. Please note, however, that the “real” Ibn Khallikan most certainly does not mention Abdul Hazred.

(The transaction described above is from the imagination of the author and is about the book, “Al azif,” in the AMED collection. Special thanks to Megan Halsband of the Serial and Government Publications Division for identifying images used in this post from the Library’s comics collections.)


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One Comment

  1. Khaled Keshk
    December 23, 2020 at 1:05 pm

    Very interesting. Even before continuing with the story I spent five minutes trying to understand the title and name to no end! Very well written as well!

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