They say that when Ali ibn Nafi emerged from his mother's womb, instead of crying, he sang. Whether you believe that or not, what is certainly true is that he could sing before he could talk, and he could beat a steady rhythm before he could walk. Perhaps this is not surprising, for he had musical genes. His mother Fana was a singer in the royal court of Baghdad at the time of the reign of the great Caliph Haroun Al Rashid, about 1,200 years ago. This was the Baghdad of magic and romance: the land of Aladdin and Sheherezade and djinni and sorcerers. And it was the Baghdad that saw a flowering of music, culture, and science that would change the world.
Fana and Ali's father Havtamo were 11 years old and betrothed to each other, when Arab slave traders abducted them in their native Ethiopia, and sold them into the Caliph's service. Fana, whose toast-colored brown skin glistened like gold and whose features were like a finely chiseled statue, was trained as a singer and courtesan, while Havtamo was trained to be a soldier in the Caliph's army. In fact, Havtamo was a terrible soldier – he was clumsy with the scimitar, slow with the pike, and too kindly to his horse ever to drive her into battle. But as luck would have it, Havtamo became a hero. He was standing in ceremonial guard when the Caliph's Vizier walked by, and an assassin rushed forward to kill him. Without thinking – and certainly not out of bravery – Havtamo leapt forward and slashed with his scimitar with all his might, almost severing the assailant's body in two and killing him on the spot. But not before the assassin's blade sliced down, splitting open Havtamo's head, gouging his left eye and severing the nerves in his shoulder. Indeed, no one expected Havtamo to survive, but life is stranger than our expectations, and Havtamo recovered. With only one eye and an ugly scar ripping across his face, and with his left arm dangling useless at his side, Havtamo was granted a handsome lump sum and a meager monthly pension, as well as his freedom. With the lump sum he promptly purchased the freedom of his childhood bride-to-be. She left the palace, and they set up house in the Ethiopian quarter of Baghdad. They were both 19 years old at the time.
Fana bore Havtamo a daughter, Abeba, and two years later, a son Ali. A week after his birth, Fana took the shriveled remains of Ali's umbilical cord to the Ethiopian fortune teller. The fortune teller was a woman of indeterminate age – her face was crinkled and her hands gnarled like an aged biblical sage, but her step was spry as a 15-year-old and her eyes twinkled with a youthful glow. The fortune teller held court in a low camel-hair tent behind her home. The flaps of the tent blocked out almost all light from outside. Straw mats covered the earthen floor. In the fire pit in the center of the tent a small pile of embers burned, bathing the space with an eerie glow. Fantastic shadows danced on the walls. Fana sat cross-legged across from the fortune teller, and handed her the brown lump of flesh. The psychic woman sniffed it, held it up to the light of the embers, and took a bite of the end to taste it.
"As this cord bound together mother and son,
"So are they in music bound as one."
She waved the cord over the fire. Blue and green and orange sparks flew up from the embers.
"Your son is born with the greatest art,
"to speak the language of the heart."
Another wave over the fire. Red and yellow spits of flame flashed in the air in every direction. The psychic's eyes glassed over in a trance.
"But, alas, great hardships shall him befall,
"Before he answers fate's great call.
"A moment, clear and sharp as glass,
"From boy to manhood he shall pass.
"And at that moment, filled with wonder,
"From family, home be torn asunder.
"Wander long from place to place,
"and fearful dangers shall he face.
"A powerful enemy shall seek to kill
"the vital essence of his will."
The fortune teller tossed the umbilical cord into the embers. A fearsome glow like a pillar, flashing the colors of the rainbow, stood straight up above the fire and passed right through the top of the tent into the sky like a beacon.
"With art your son shall smite the foe,
"To timeless stature shall he grow.
"To meet your son again – not ever,
"But bonds of love and art – no force shall sever."
The pillar of light faded away. The fortune teller awoke from her trance, and smiled gently at Fana. But Fana was in tears. "Why do you tell me these things? I do not want to lose him ever!"
"You should not weep, but rejoice," replied the soothsayer. "Your son has a powerful destiny.
"And I have this advice for you: be strong, be firm, and give your son freely of your own gifts. And when that moment comes when he shall set out to seek his destiny, give him the push that will strengthen him on his way."
And with those words, the fortune teller rose, as did Fana, who headed home, her heart filled with dread and wonder and hope.