'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The Mystery Of The Fugitive Arab Chief

"The solution of a mystery is always less impressive than the mystery itself" - Jorge Luis Borges

It was only yesterday that I encountered the little fiction written by Borges in 1949: "ibn Hakam al-Bokhari, dead in his labyrinth". Its basic plot goes approximately thus:

A man calling himself ibn Hakam al-Bokhari, deposed king of a Nilotic principality, arrives at a coastal village in England; he says he is fleeing from the ghost of his vizier Zaid (whom he had himself killed). He acquires some land, lays out a vast labyrinth and hides in it guarded by a lion and a slave - and never ventures out. One day the man is again seen outside, in great agitation. He says his hideout has been attacked; and then he vanishes. Folks go and inspect the labyrinth and they find the lion, the slave and ibn Hakam himself, all dead, with their faces smashed in. Nobody knows what exactly has been going on. The mystery remains unresolved for many years....

Without spoiling the end of the story (read it in 'Collected Fictions' available at Gigapedia), let me quote some samples:

"(ibn Hakam) seemed very tall, he was a man with sallow skin, black eyes, an insolent nose, fleshy lips,... beard ... self-assured and silent."

ibn Hakam says: "No man can place judgment upon what I am doing now. My sins are such that were I to invoke for centuries the Ultimate Name of God, this would be powerless to set aside my torments!... I ruled over the tribes of the desert... (then) my armies were broken and put to sword. I escaped with the wealth I had accumulated during my reign of plunder...."

Unwin, the Mathematician trying to solve the mystery, says: "I know the story is a lie - although its facts are true. ... A fugitive does not hide himself in a maze. He does not build himself a labyrinth... For anyone who really wants to hide away,.... (a city) is far better."

A comment about the killer: "He really wanted to see ibn Hakaam dead.... he killed ibn Hakam and in the end he became ibn Hakam! He was a good-for-nothing..."


Just in case this post appears opaque, its intent a mystery, let me spill the beans; whether the solution I am about to give is "less impressive than the mystery itself", I really dunno!

A fugitive Arab leader (very tall, check; bearded, check; fleshy-lips, check; insolent nose, ... can't decide - what type of nose is insolent?!) is in the news - indeed he IS the news. His army largely destroyed, his mountain hideout (described by media nearly always as a labyrinth) under persistent attack, he figured it was smarter to hide in a proper city; and he did just that - with near complete success. And his 'end', like that of the Borges character, may remain an enigma for a long time to come.

Borges clearly advises: "keep in mind the 'Purloined Letter'!". And as I have just checked, that detective story by Edgar Allan Poe shows: sometimes, the best place to hide is also the most visible, the most obvious. In it, Poe has also aired some interesting opinions on Mathematicians. More on that later!