Jalil Sultani: Dear Johannes
Eighteen young Flemish and Dutch authors have taken inspiration from seventeenth-century artefacts from the Rijksmuseum. Looking at these objects, what eureka moments do they see? Jalil Sultani wrote a letter inspired by the book held by Johannes Wtenbogaert on Rembrandt van Rijn’s portrait of him. ‘treat it like you’d treat me’
Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Johannes Wtenbogaert, 1633 © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Let it be your fingers that open this letter. I wouldn’t trust anybody else to do so. I’m writing to you from the Paraclete, the abbey of Heloïse and Abelard. Do you remember how we used to read their letters to each other? I forget what we talked about. But I recall the feeling as vividly as the image: the circles in the pond smoothing over after our pebbles, pensive as if they too would remember. Like Abelard, we were not allowed to stay, and his word was silenced as was mine. I’m sorry to have to tell you about the similarity:
My manuscript is buried underneath the altar in the Paraclete. It is the sole copy of the work to which I dedicated my life. The original didn’t survive the Congregation. Its ashes whirl around the Vatican, won’t even make it into an Ash Wednesday cross. I wasn’t curious enough to find out whether the church envisaged a similar fate for me, so I went on the run. As my creation is the least safe in my own hands, I can only look after it by leaving it to someone else. Hopefully, the current truce will benefit my messenger and my call for help will reach you in time. Your silence worries me. Have your letters gone astray perchance? Was my post intercepted? Or have we both gone on the run? I refuse to entertain an alternative.
Convinced as I was that my research served the truth, the church’s betrayal stings badly. It was the church that ordered me to look into the dancing plague! Thankfully you always found my naivety charmingly feminine. The calluses on my knees, the knife in my back and the festering wound must be winsome side effects. I know: healing starts with understanding. But understanding is the very thing I have been denied. Could it be because the outbursts of dancing mania were started by dervishes? Or because those dervishes were women? Does the church want to keep the alliance between the Ottomans and the Protestants a secret? I can only guess at the intentions and the not knowing leaves me despondent. Oh Johannes, if only you were here. You alone know the true meaning of courage. In between prayers, the words ‘Rather Turkish than Papist’ roll off my tongue, my heart so full of pain and poison.
Abelard saw his losses as a just and fitting punishment from God. He embraced them. I don’t. I refuse to give in to injustice and lies. Should I drop to my knees? Be a good girl and swallow my pride so I can practice humility for the rest of my days? And hope that I’ll be rewarded with a place in paradise? Give me the gallows instead. As you know, God has a weak spot for martyrs, but I love life too much to be submissive. Martyrdom will have to come and get me.
We once met a hermit from the Alps. Should you come looking for me, try there. I’m asking you, when your circumstances permit, to find my manuscript and to ensure that it outlasts us. Protect it from the violence perpetrated on the original and treat it like you’d treat me.
I pray we meet again,
Fare thee well.