Saturday, December 30, 2017

Top 15 Best English Language Films of 2017

I've not had the chance to catch all English movies in the cinema this year, so don't judge me if your favourite is not on this list, which is limited to those I've had the chance to watch. 

15) La La Land

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Considering all the critical acclaim and universal attention that this film received, you might think it deserves to be higher on this list.  It is a technical masterpiece no doubt. But then again, musicals? We've seen better. Success stories? We've seen a lot of those. We still enjoyed this film, which is why it is even ON this list in the first place. The songs, despite being performed by non-singers, are still really good. The story does tug at your heartstrings very well and plays to its advantage.

14) The Foreigner

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Director Martin Campbell ignores Chan's usual Hollywood persona and gives him a more dramatic role. The film gives Chan fans what they want; an action-packed thriller with Jackie kicking some serious butt every now and then. However, it is mostly a compelling story with another big star, Pierce Brosnan, playing an equally big part. We're not sure if this is a film for Jackie Chan fans, but it sure is made for those who enjoy a good political thriller with some action thrown in. 

13) Alien: Covenant

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If anything at all, this film proves one thing; even at his most average, director Ridley Scott can make a better film than most film directors today. Most die hard fans of the original Alien films never liked Prometheus to begin with. So, it is only natural they were displeased with this new prequel as well. Maybe we like this film so much because we never grew up watching the original films. It stays true to the Alien film formula, but heightens everything else - the gore, the suspense and the horror.

12) Logan

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Hugh Jackman ends his seventeen years playing the titular character with what is possibly the most violent yet most emotional X-Men standalone film ever made. As the director of the last Wolverine film, James Mangold must have had huge expectations on his shoulders but he still manages to deliver on all expectations while defying them. The reason is Logan is a survivalist film, a Western film, a  film noir and many more, but it is not a superhero film, which makes it so great.

11) Beauty and the Beast

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A major complaint against 2014's Maleficent is it was disloyal to its source material. Disney learned its lesson and stayed more faithful to their original films' premises with Cinderella and The Jungle Book. With this film, Disney stayed true to its winning formula and gave us a more than decent film. This film could have been higher on this list if it had been a little bit bolder with the direction it was headed but it still is a very entertaining film for the entire family.

10) It

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It is always challenging to adapt a film from a popular book that already has a small screen adaptation that is almost as popular. However, director Andy Muschietti still managed to deliver a film that is not only set in the 80s, but feels like an 80s film too with the whole kids-on-bikes vibe. Unlike other horror films today that rely too much on gore and jump scares, this film has a surprising amount of emotion and comedy too.

9) Split

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Given the right opportunity, M. Night Shyamalan has proven that he can not only make a good movie, but a great one. Early reviews kept promising they would not give out any key plot points, which was enough for audiences to expect a twist end. Knowing that audiences would keep guessing the twist, the film surely gave those familiar with Shyamalan's earlier work, a jaw-dropping ending. Even without that end, this is probably the best psychological thriller of the year.

8) Wind River

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In a list full of horror films and big blockbusters, here is one that stands out. A mystery thriller set around the Native American community that is based on actual events. The film is a slow burn, which means it is not for people who prefer the other films on this list. The film takes its time to reveal the actual culprit behind the murder that our two main leads are investigating, but when we get there, the reveal is satisfying and brutal to say the least. 

7) Blade Runner 2049

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In what world would a sequel to one of the most beloved and iconic science fiction films in history live up to its predecessor's name? Live that to director Denis Villeneuve, who has not made one bad film as far as we can tell. Villeneuve took Ridley Scott's advice by leaving some room for mystery, which made the first film so good. This film stayed true to the first film's theme on what makes us human and expanded on its possibilities. A good sequel to a good film indeed.

6) Wonder Woman

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Finally, we have a proper female superhero film that does not disappoint. While Marvel continues to make comedy films and other DC films try to be gritty,  Wonder Woman has found the right balance. This film could have taken the easy road and shoved feminism down our throats, but it didn't. Instead, it showed both our male and female leads in a positive light, working hand in hand to save the world from evil. And of course, this film finally gave us a theme music that will become iconic.

5) Get Out

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Although it has been marketed as a horror film, it is best described as a socio-thriller as mentioned by its director, Jordon Peele. This film is a clever commentary on race in America today that toys with the missing white woman syndrome with multiple layers of symbolism and metaphors that cannot be truly appreciated in just one sitting. While Hollywood has been accused for conservative-bashing over the years, this one has something to say about whites who assume they are liberals but are harmful than helpful towards minorities.

4) Dunkirk

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How do you tell a story based on true events of which people already know the outcome? Director Christopher Nolan did not give his audience any room to breath throughout the film. He maintains the tension from the start right to the very end. Since the entire film is set in real time, we feel as if we are there at the beach with the British and French soldiers fighting to escape the Germans. This is hands down one of the best war films to be released in recent years.

3) Arrival

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Technically, just like La La Land, this is a 2016 film but its arrival (pun intended) to our local cinema was a few months late. This is the second Denis Villeneuve film on this list and he has quite a few surprises up his sleeve. This kind of films never get released here but I suppose because it revolves around aliens, people assumed it was a big action flick and we were surprised with a full house. The film takes its time in revealing the aliens true intentions and impatient audiences did walk out, but those who stayed till the end were we rewarded with a more than satisfying ending.

2) Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Unlike most blockbusters (read: DCEU films) that are loved by the fan base but disliked by critics, this film has achieved the opposite. However, as someone who was never a Star Wars die-hard fan, The Force Awakens peaked my interest, and this film made me fall in love with the new sequel trilogy. For almost two years, there has been lots of speculations and fan theories. Director Rian Johnson subverted all expectations and gave us something truly surprising.

1) War for the Planet of the Apes

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How do you get an audience to turn against its own fellow humans and support another species that we know, in the future, is going to enslave us. Ask director Matt Reeves, who gave us one of the best final movies in a trilogy. It is hard to believe Andy Serkis will never receive an Oscar for all his motion capture work, including this one, because we can actually see the emotion in his face. This is one of those rare blockbusters that make us think and question things.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi - Top 10 Fan Theories You Need To Know Before Watching the Movie

Time for more Skywalker - Solo family drama! If there is one thing that the latest trailer, movie posters and press briefings have done well is excellently tease us on what The Last Jedi's story is going to turn out. There has been a total of seven Star Wars saga films that have come out before this and also five anthology films. So audiences who are not very familiar with the previous films might be a little confused on what is going on. So, here is a list of Top 12 fan theories you need to know before watching the movie. 

1) Luke is now the villain

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How many more hints do we need? There is that popular meme showing how the villains for each Star Wars film are always in the background, and Luke's face, in red (we will get to this later) is in The Last Jedi's background. Daisy Ridley also mentioned, "It's difficult when you meet your hero because it might not be what you expect." Not to mention in The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda warns Luke that if he leaves without completing his training to become a Jedi, he might turn to the Dark Side like Vader and become an agent of evil. Convinced? Well, if that's not enough, Luke actually says in the trailer, "It is time for the Jedi to end." One of the Super Carlin Brothers on YouTube theorizes that perhaps Luke is not a classic villain with evil motivations but he will be more of an anti-hero who is trying to stop the Jedi's ongoing resistance to restore peace in the galaxy. 

2) Rey might turn to the Dark Side

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Yes, everybody might be turning evil. Upon closer inspection of the trailer, you can see that it is hinted that both Rey and Kylo might turn out to be not what we expect them to be. Supreme Leader Snoke tells an unseen character how he has finally found them. It is unlikely to be Kylo who he already knows and has trained to be on his side. Then, could it be Rey, whom in the trailer scares the heck out of Luke when she uses the Force to crack the rocky ground? Next, we finally see Snoke in person telling someone (a female, because the Taiwanese trailer uses a female pronoun as a substitute for the English 'you') to accept their destiny and then we cut to him torturing Rey. The entire trailer is edited in a way to make us question the nature of these two characters and how they might turn out to be. Towards the end, we see Kylo extending his hand towards what seems to be Rey, although that might just be clever editing to mislead us. 

3) Captain Phasma is actually good

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See? Not everybody is turning evil in Star Wars. Captain Phasma, the first female villain in a Star Wars movie, is a high ranking Stormtrooper but everything she does seems less than smart, ultimately making things easy for the Resistance. This begs the question; is Captain Phasma actually good? It is hard to tell with actress Gwendoline Christie wearing a helmet all the time. First, she has to ask whether she needs to kill some villagers or not, as if killing them would not help her cause. Later, she orders Finn to put his helmet back on and report to her division. This could be a threat but it could also mean she has found an ally. But best of all, when confronted by Finn, she lowers the shield of her base without putting up a struggle despite being more highly trained than him. Also, notice when Finn is threatening her with a gun, she simply says, "You're making a mistake" instead of something more sinister, probably because she is actually on their side. Then, she even warns them that breaking into her base will not be so easy. Once again, this might not just be a threat but a warning. 

4) Leia is going to die 

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The late Carrie Fisher has left us in real life so it does make sense to kill of her character since her CGI younger version in Rogue One was not very well received. Kylo Ren has already killed his father Han, unless you believe the theory that suggests otherwise. But now, in order to complete his conversion to the Dark Side, he has to kill his last surviving parent, his mother. In the new trailer, Kylo is shown driving a jet and heading towards the ship carrying his mother, presumably to kill her. One theory from the Star Wars Theory channel suggests that Snoke gains his powers by absorbing the life force out of the Jedi. Leia, who is Force-sensitive, might be abducted by Snoke towards the climax of the new film in order for him to steal her life, and this will ultimately kill her.  

5) Watch out for the colour Red

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In Star Wars, red is always the colour of the villains. This is most apparent in the colour of their Lightsabers. The members of the Sith almost always have red Lightsabers. Just like wand ownership in the Harry Potter saga, it is the Lightsabers that choose their owners and they are not inclined towards those on the Dark Side. Instead, most of those on the Dark Side steal their Lightsabers from others or theirs get corrupted once they convert to the Dark Side. Red is also used predominantly in not just the latest trailer but also in many promotional materials. For instance, the IMAX poster with our heroes on it heavily features the colour red. In the trailer, we see Crait, a small mineral planet covered with a layer of white salt over its bright red soil underneath. The font of the title on the poster is also red, perhaps to indicate the villains will have the upper hand in this film. This is perfect in order to set the stage for the final third movie in this new sequel trilogy. 

6) Who is the Last Jedi?

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The most obvious candidate is Luke, since the opening scroll of The Force Awakens calls him that following the events of Return of the Jedi. However, there are a few other candidates. Between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, Luke was training a new generation of Jedi until one of his pupils, his own nephew Kylo Ren killed all his classmates and turned to the Dark Side. However, Kylo was feeling a pull towards the Light Side in the last movie, meaning he could betray the Dark Side and eventually redeem himself by becoming the last Jedi.  Another candidate is, of course, Rey. In the new trailer, we see Luke training her to use the Force, just like how Yoda trained him and Obi Wan trained Anakin. Let's not forget one more candidate, Finn. In The Force Awakens, Finn is not shown to possess the Force but he does win one when he is using a Lightsaber against Kylo Ren despite loosing most of his other fights. Now, all these is possible if the last Jedi is singular. The meme on whether Jedi in the latest film's title is either singular or plural has already gone viral. Perhaps they all are part of the last Jedi, a once powerful and influential organization.

7) Han and Leia are Rey's parents 

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In order to understand each main character's origins, it is important we understand a quote from Star Wars creator, George Lucas. He once said something along the lines of Star Wars being like poetry, meaning each trilogy parallels the trilogy that comes after and before it like a fixed rhyme scheme of sorts. When Rey first flies the Millenium Falcon, it was a nice throwback to the time Han was flying it, suggesting he is her father. In addition, Kylo does mock Rey for imagining Han as the father she never had. Furthermore, when Kylo first learns that there is a girl at his base, his reaction is so deadly he almost kills the messenger who brought him the news. Later, when he has captured Rey, he is surprised to see that she still wants to kill him. Still? But they only just met. Could it be the two of them share some history? Siblings, perhaps? If the original trilogy was about a brother and sister duo, perhaps this new trilogy is also about a brother and sister duo. Finally, when Leia hugs Rey before they part, the screenplay describes it as a "mother's embrace." But then again, throughout The Force Awakens, Han and Leia talk about their son, Kylo but make no mention of a daughter at all.

8) Obi Wan is Rey's father 

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Next candidate is Obi Wan Kenobi, who is the only Star Wars human protagonist (C3PO is a robot) apart from Rey to have a British accent. In the trailer, we can hear Obi Wan's voice when Rey appears on screen. Yes, he was already quite old in the original trilogy, but think about. Other British actors in Star Wars like Liam Neeson, and John Boyega use American accents. Why do only these two good characters sound British? But then again, she probably got it from Unkar Plutt, the Jakku resident she was raised by. Speaking of the original trilogy, it was there where Obi Wan presented Luke with his father's Lightsaber. And now, decades later, who else better to return it to him but another Kenobi. In addition, the original and prequel trilogies featured a Kenobi training a Skywalker. Perhaps in this new sequel trilogy, we could see a Skywalker training a Kenobi. Poetry, remember? However, this could be debunked since Obi Wan was already quite old in the original trilogy and the Jedi are supposed to remain celebate.

9) Luke is Rey's father 

Source: Google Images

The candidate  who is the Internet's favourite for this position is no other than Luke Skywalker himself. Mark Hamil, who plays Luke, let slip during a press briefing that when he sees Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey, he sees his daughter. Maybe he could be trolling us for fun. But them, remember in the last movie, his Lightsaber specifically summons Rey, possibly because the Force senses that she is connected to him in someway. Also, notice the parallels between Rey, Luke and Anakin. Not only are their costumes strikingly similar, all three of them were raised in dessert planets. Poetry! But here is probably the most convincing piece of evidence; balance. At the end of the day, the entire Star Wars story comes down to one character; Anakin Skywalker, the Chosen One who was supposed to bring balance to the Force. So, just imagine the final war ultimately between Rey, the daughter of his son, and Kylo, the son of his daughter. BALANCE. But then again, he is a Jedi too, so there is that whole celibacy thing. Or perhaps just like Anakin, Rey is conceived by the Force? Who knows.

10) The first Jedi temple contains ancient texts

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In the latest trailer, we are shown the first Jedi temple which houses a set of ancient texts that might be the Journal of the Whills. In order to speculate what this journals might be about, it is possible to consider how the Jedi institution is more like the Hindu warriors knows as Kshatriyas than Samurais. Just like the Ksyathriya, the Jedi are trained in warfare with high spiritual and ethical values. Just like the Force, Hindu's believe in Shakti, the primordial cosmic energy that represents the dynamic forces which exists in all of us. However, only a few can control their inner Shakti through long periods of training. The Jedi's training system is also similar to the Hindu Gurukula system, where a Guru or teacher, trains his or her students according to the righteous way of life. Lastly, the goal of life for every Hindu is to serve God by serving their fellow humans selflessly in order to enter heaven and achieve Moksha, which means the union with God. For the Jedi, their ultimate goal is the harness the Light Side to serve the Galaxy and ultimately unite with the Force. Why is this important? Because balance. In Hinduism, a balance of good Karma and bad Karma will always exist in the universe. This is why the final showdown in the last movie of this trilogy will be between Rey and Kylo.

11) Snoke is a Fallen Jedi

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Before the Sith was established, a Jedi who turned to the Dark Side was considered a Fallen Jedi. Now, we need to stress how the identity of Snoke, who has witnessed the rise and fall of the Galactic Empire, needs to create a huge impact. If not, this would beg the question, where has he been this whole time? After discovering that Kylo, like his grandfather, possesses the right balance of the Dark and Light sides of the Force in him, Snoke chose him as his follower. Strangely, unlike Emperor Palpatine before him, Snoke is interested not just in the Dark Side of the Force but in the embodiment of a balance with the Light Side as well. Despite being a very powerful user of the Force, Snoke is shown to be more comfortable having those under his command do his bidding by communicating with them through holograms. This is probably because, for some reason, he is not in his strongest form. However, when he appears live in this trailer, we see most of the scars in his face have mostly healed, suggesting that he is slowly growing strong.

12) Kylo Ren is pulling a Severus Snape

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Not only do they look, sound and dress the same, but both Kylo and Snape might have similar character arcs as well. While confronting his father, Han Solo, Kylo Ren says in tears, "I know what I have to do but I don't know if I have the strength to do it. Will you help me?" They then both hold his Lightsaber and Kylo shockingly stabs his own father with it. How could have Han be so naive to think his son might spare him? Perhaps that is not the case. It might be more possible that Han committed suicide. Kylo, during his last moments with his estranged father, clearly showed that he still had some Light in him. Earlier in the film, he even says to Darth Vader's helmet that he can feel the Light. It is likely he might be a double agent for the Resistance. In order to convince Snoke that he has truly turned against his family, he has to prove himself by killing his own father. Not being able to do it, Han helped his son by taking his own life and making it appear like his son killed him. 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate by Ted Chiang

The story I have to tell is truly a strange one, and were the entirety to be tattooed at the corner of one's eye, the marvel of its presentation would not exceed that of the events recounted, for it is a warning to those who would be warned and a lesson to those who would learn.

My name is Fuwaad ibn Abbas, and I was born here in Baghdad, City of Peace. My father was a grain merchant, but for much of my life I have worked as a purveyor of fine fabrics, trading in silk from Damascus and linen from Egypt and scarves from Morocco that are embroidered with gold. I was prosperous, but my heart was troubled, and neither the purchase of luxuries nor the giving of alms was able to soothe it. Now I stand before you without a single Dirham in my purse, but I am at peace.

Allah is the beginning of all things, but with your permission, I begin my story with the day I took a walk through the district of metal smiths. I needed to purchase a gift for a man I had to do business with, and had been told he might appreciate a tray made of silver. After browsing for half an hour, I noticed that one of the largest shops in the market had been taken over by a new merchant. It was a prized location that must have been expensive to acquire, so I entered to peruse its wares. Never before had I seen such a marvelous assortment of goods. Near the entrance there was an astrolabe equipped with seven plates inlaid with silver, a water-clock that chimed on the hour, and a nightingale made of brass that sang when the wind blew. Farther inside there were even more ingenious mechanisms, and I stared at them the way a child watches a juggler, when an old man stepped out from a doorway in the back, almost as if he has been expecting me. 

"Welcome to my humble shop, my lord," he said. "My name is Bashaarat. How may I assist you?"

"These are remarkable items that you have for sale. I deal with traders from every corner of the world, and yet I have never seen their like. From where, may I ask, did you acquire your merchandise?"

"I am grateful to you for your kind words," he said. "Everything you see here was made in my workshop, by myself or by my assistants under my direction."

I was impressed that this man could be so well versed in so many arts. I asked him about the various instruments in his shop, and listened to him discourse learnedly about astrology, mathematics, geomancy, and medicine. We spoke for over an hour, and my fascination and respect bloomed like a flower warmed by the dawn, until he mentioned his experiments in alchemy.

"Alchemy?" I said. This surprised me, for he did not seem the type to make such a sharper's claim. "You mean you can turn base metal into gold?"

"I can, my lord, but that is not in fact what most seek from alchemy."

"What do most seek, then?"

"They seek a source of gold that is cheaper than mining ore from the ground.  Alchemy does describe a means to make gold, but the procedure is so arduous that, by comparison, digging beneath a mountain is as easy as plucking peaches from a tree."

I smiled. "A clever reply. No one could dispute that you are a learned man, but I know better than to credit alchemy."

Bashaarat looked at me and considered. "I have recently built something that may change your opinion. You would be the first person I have shown it to. Would you care to see it?"

"It would be a great pleasure."

"Please follow me." He led me through the doorway in the rear of his shop. The next room was a workshop, arrayed with devices whose functions I could not guess—bars of metal wrapped with enough copper thread to reach the horizon, mirrors mounted on a circular slab of granite floating in quicksilver—but Bashaarat walked past these without a glance.

Instead he led me to a sturdy pedestal, chest high, on which a stout metal hoop was mounted upright. The hoop's opening was as wide as two outstretched hands, and its rim so thick that it would tax the strongest man to carry. The metal was black as night, but polished to such smoothness that, had it been a different color, it could have served as a mirror. Bashaarat bade me stand so that I looked upon the hoop edgewise, while he stood next to its opening.

"Please observe," he said.

Bashaarat thrust his arm through the hoop from the right side, but it did not extend out from the left. Instead, it was as if his arm were severed at the elbow, and he waved the stump up and down, and then pulled his arm out intact. I had not expected to see such a learned man perform a conjuror's trick, but it was well done, and I applauded politely.

"Now wait a moment," he said as he took a step back.

I waited, and behold, an arm reached out of the hoop from its left side, without a body to hold it up. The sleeve it wore matched Bashaarat's robe. The arm waved up and down, and then retreated through the hoop until it was gone. The first trick I had thought a clever mime, but this one seemed far superior, because the pedestal and hoop were clearly too slender to conceal a person. 

"Very clever!" I exclaimed.

"Thank you, but this is not mere sleight of hand. The right side of the hoop precedes the left by several seconds. To pass through the hoop is to cross that duration instantly."

"I do not understand," I said.

"Let me repeat the demonstration." Again he thrust his arm through the hoop, and his arm disappeared. He smiled, and pulled back and forth as if playing tug-a-rope. Then he pulled his arm out again, and presented his hand to me with the palm open. On it lay a ring I recognized.

"That is my ring!" I checked my hand, and saw that my ring still lay on my finger.

"You have conjured up a duplicate."

"No, this is truly your ring. Wait."

Again, an arm reached out from the left side. Wishing to discover the mechanism of the trick, I rushed over to grab it by the hand. It was not a false hand, but one fully warm and alive as mine. I pulled on it, and it pulled back. Then, as deft as a pickpocket, the hand slipped the ring from my finger and the arm withdrew into the hoop, vanishing completely.

"My ring is gone!" I exclaimed.

"No, my lord," he said. "Your ring is here." And he gave me the ring he held. "Forgive me for my game."

I replaced it on my finger. "You had the ring before it was taken from me." At that moment an arm reached out, this time from the right side of the hoop. "What is this?" I exclaimed. Again I recognized it as his by the sleeve before it withdrew, but I had not seen him reach in.

"Recall," he said, "the right side of the hoop precedes the left." And he walked over to the left side of the hoop, and thrust his arm through from that side, and again it disappeared.

You have undoubtedly already grasped this, but it was only then that I understood: whatever happened on the right side of the hoop was complemented, a few seconds later, by an event on the left side. 

"Is this sorcery?" I asked.

"No, my lord, I have never met a Djinni, and if I did, I would not trust it to do my bidding. This is a form of alchemy."

He offered an explanation, speaking of his search for tiny pores in the skin of reality, like the holes that worms bore into wood, and how upon finding one he was able to expand and stretch it the way a glassblower turns a dollop of molten glass into a long-necked pipe, and how he then allowed time to flow like water at one mouth while causing it to thicken like syrup at the other. I confess I did not really understand his words, and cannot testify to their truth. 

All I could say in response was, "You have created something truly astonishing."

"Thank you," he said, "but this is merely a prelude to what I intended to show you."

He bade me follow him into another room, farther in the back. There stood a circular doorway whose massive frame was made of the same polished black metal, mounted in the middle of the room.

"What I showed you before was a Gate of Seconds," he said. "This is a Gate of Years. The two sides of the doorway are separated by a span of twenty years."

I confess I did not understand his remark immediately. I imagined him reaching his arm in from the right side and waiting twenty years before it emerged from the left side, and it seemed a very obscure magic trick. I said as much, and he laughed. 

"That is one use for it," he said, "but consider what would happen if you were to step through." Standing on the right side, he gestured for me to come closer, and then pointed through the doorway. "Look."

I looked, and saw that there appeared to be different rugs and pillows on the other side of the room than I had seen when I had entered. I moved my head from side to side, and realized that when I peered through the doorway, I was looking at a different room from the one I stood in.

"You are seeing the room twenty years from now," said Bashaarat.

I blinked, as one might at an illusion of water in the desert, but what I saw did not change. 

"And you say I could step through?" I asked. 

"You could. And with that step, you would visit the Baghdad of twenty years hence. You could seek out your older self and have a conversation with him. Afterwards, you could step back through the Gate of Years and return to the present day."

Hearing Bashaarat's words, I felt as if I were reeling. "You have done this?" I asked him. "You have stepped through?"

"I have, and so have numerous customers of mine."

"Earlier you said I was the first to whom you showed this."

"This Gate, yes. But for many years I owned a shop in Cairo, and it was there that I first built a Gate of Years. There were many to whom I showed that Gate, and who made use of it."

"What did they learn when talking to their older selves?"

"Each person learns something different. Even though the past is unchangeable, one may encounter the unexpected when visiting it. Do you now understand why I say the future and the past are the same? We cannot change either, but we can know both more fully."

"I do understand; you have opened my eyes, and now I wish to use the Gate of Years. What price do you ask?"

He waved his hand. "I do not sell passage through the Gate," he said. "Allah guides whom he wishes to my shop, and I am content to be an instrument of his will."

Had it been another man, I would have taken his words to be a negotiating ploy, but after all that Bashaarat had told me, I knew that he was sincere. "Your generosity is as boundless as your learning," I said, and bowed. "If there is ever a service that a merchant of fabrics might provide for you, please call upon me."

"Thank you. Let us talk now about your trip. There are some matters we must speak of before you visit the Baghdad of twenty years hence."

"I do not wish to visit the future," I told him. "I would step through in the other direction, to revisit my youth."

"Ah, my deepest apologies. This Gate will not take you there. You see, I built this Gate only a week ago. Twenty years ago, there was no doorway here for you to step out of."

My dismay was so great that I must have sounded like a forlorn child. I said, "But where does the other side of the Gate lead?" and walked around the circular doorway to face its opposite side.

Bashaarat walked around the doorway to stand beside me. The view through the Gate appeared identical to the view outside it, but when he extended his hand to reach through, it stopped as if it met an invisible wall. I looked more closely, and noticed a brass lamp set on a table. Its flame did not flicker, but was as fixed and unmoving as if the room were trapped in clearest amber.

"What you see here is the room as it appeared last week," said Bashaarat. "In some twenty years' time, this left side of the Gate will permit entry, allowing people to enter from this direction and visit their past. Or," he said, leading me back to the side of the doorway he had first shown me, "we can enter from the right side now, and visit them ourselves. But I'm afraid this Gate will never allow visits to the days of your youth."

"What about the Gate of Years you had in Cairo?" I asked.

He nodded. "That Gate still stands. My son now runs my shop there."

"So I could travel to Cairo, and use the Gate to visit the Cairo of twenty years ago. From there I could travel back to Baghdad."

"Yes, you could make that journey, if you so desire."

"I do," I said. "Will you tell me how to find your shop in Cairo?"

"We must speak of some things first," said Bashaarat. "I will not ask your intentions,  being content to wait until you are ready to tell me. But I would remind you that what is made cannot be unmade."

"I know," I said.

"And that you cannot avoid the ordeals that are assigned to you. What Allah gives you, you must accept."

"I remind myself of that every day of my life."

"Then it is my honor to assist you in whatever way I can," he said. He brought out some paper and a pen and ink pot and began writing. "I shall write for you a letter to aid you on your journey." He folded the letter, dribbled some candle wax over the edge, and pressed his ring against it. "When you reach Cairo, give this to my son, and he will let you enter the Gate of Years there."

A merchant such as myself must be well-versed in expressions of gratitude, but I had never before been as effusive in giving thanks as I was to Bashaarat, and every word was heartfelt. He gave me directions to his shop in Cairo, and I assured him I would tell him all upon my return. As I was about to leave his shop, a thought occurred to me. 

"Because the Gate of Years you have here opens to the future, you are assured that the Gate and this shop will be remain standing for twenty years or more."

"Yes, that is true," said Bashaarat.

I began to ask him if he had met his older self, but then I bit back my words. If the answer was no, it was surely because his older self was dead, and I would be asking him if he knew the date of his death. Who was I to make such an inquiry, when this man was granting me a boon without asking my intentions? I saw from his expression that he knew what I had meant to ask, and I bowed my head in humble apology. He indicated his acceptance with a nod, and I returned home to make arrangements.

The caravan took two months to reach Cairo. As for what occupied my mind during the journey, I now tell you what I had not told Bashaarat. 

I was married once, twenty years before, to a woman named Najya. Her figure swayed as gracefully as a willow bough and her face was as lovely as the moon, but it was her kind and tender nature that captured my heart. I had just begun my career as a merchant when we married, and we were not wealthy, but did not feel the lack.

We had been married only a year when I was to travel to Basra to meet with a ship's captain. I had an opportunity to profit by trading in slaves, but Najya did not approve. I reminded her that the Koran does not forbid the owning of slaves as long as one treats them well, and that even the Prophet owned some. But she said there was no way I could know how my buyers would treat their slaves, and that it was better to sell goods than men.

On the morning of my departure, Najya and I argued. I spoke harshly to her, using words that it shames me to recall. I left in anger, and never saw her again. She was badly injured when the wall of a mosque collapsed, some days after I left. She was taken to the bimaristan, but the physicians could not save her, and she died soon after. I did not learn of her death until I returned a week later, and I felt as if I had killed her with my own hand.

Can the torments of Hell be worse than what I endured in the days that followed? It seemed likely that I would find out, so near to death did my anguish take me. And surely  the experience must be similar, for like infernal fire, grief burns but does not consume; instead, it makes the heart vulnerable to further suffering.

Eventually my period of lamentation ended, and I was left a hollow man, a bag of skin with no innards. I freed the slaves I had bought and became a fabric merchant. Over the years I became wealthy, but I never remarried. Some of the men I did business with tried to match me with a sister or a daughter, telling me that the love of a woman can make you forget your pains. Perhaps they are right, but it cannot make you forget the pain you caused another. Whenever I imagined myself marrying another woman, I remembered the look of hurt in Najya's eyes when I last saw her, and my heart was closed to others.

I spoke to a Mullah about what I had done, and it was he who told me that repentance and atonement erase the past. I repented and atoned as best I knew how; for twenty years I lived as an upright man, I offered prayers and fasted and gave alms to those less fortunate and made a pilgrimage to Mecca, and yet I was still haunted by guilt. Allah is all-merciful, so I knew the failing to be mine.

Had Bashaarat asked me, I could not have said what I hoped to achieve. It was clear from his stories that I could not change what I knew to have happened. No one had stopped my younger self from arguing with Najya in our final conversation. But perhaps I might be able to play some part in events while my younger self was away on business.

Could it not be that there had been a mistake, and my Najya had survived? Perhaps it was another woman whose body had been wrapped in a shroud and buried while I was gone. Perhaps I could rescue Najya and bring her back with me to the Baghdad of my own day. I knew it was foolhardy; men of experience say, "Four things do not come back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity," and I understood the truth of those words better than most. And yet I dared to hope that Allah had judged my twenty years of repentance sufficient, and was now granting me a chance to regain what I had lost.

The caravan journey was uneventful, and after sixty sunrises and three hundred prayers, I reached Cairo. There I had to navigate the city's streets, which are a bewildering maze compared to the harmonious design of the City of Peace. I made my way to the Bayn al-Qasrayn, the main street that runs through the Fatimid quarter of Cairo. From there I found the street on which Bashaarat's shop was located.

I told the shopkeeper that I had spoken to his father in Baghdad, and gave him the letter Bashaarat had given me. After reading it, he led me into a back room, in whose center stood another Gate of Years, and he gestured for me to enter from its left side.

As I stood before the massive circle of metal, I felt a chill, and chided myself for my nervousness. With a deep breath I stepped through, and found myself in the same room with different furnishings. If not for those, I would not have known the Gate to be different from an ordinary doorway. Then I recognized that the chill I had felt was simply the coolness of the air in this room, for the day here was not as hot as the day I had left. I could feel its warm breeze at my back, coming through the Gate like a sigh.

The shopkeeper followed behind me and called out, "Father, you have a visitor." 

A man entered the room, and who should it be but Bashaarat, twenty years younger than when I'd seen him in Baghdad. "Welcome, my lord," he said. "I am Bashaarat."

"You do not know me?" I asked.

"No, you must have met my older self. For me, this is our first meeting, but it is my honor to assist you."

As befits this chronicle of my shortcomings, I must confess that, so immersed was I in my own woes during the journey from Baghdad, I had not previously realized that Bashaarat had likely recognized me the moment I stepped into his shop. Even as I was admiring his water-clock and brass songbird, he had known that I would travel to Cairo, and likely knew whether I had achieved my goal or not. The Bashaarat I spoke to now knew none of those things. 

"I am doubly grateful for your kindness, sir," I said. "My name is Fuwaad ibn Abbas, newly arrived from Baghdad."

Bashaarat's son took his leave, and Bashaarat and I conferred; I asked him the day and month, confirming that there was ample time for me to travel back to the City of Peace, and promised him I would tell him everything when I returned. His younger self was as gracious as his older. 

"I look forward to speaking with you on your return, and to assisting you again twenty years from now," he said.

His words gave me pause. "Had you planned to open a shop in Baghdad before today?"

"Why do you ask?"

"I had been marveling at the coincidence that we met in Baghdad just in time for me to make my journey here, use the Gate, and travel back. But now I wonder if it is perhaps not a coincidence at all. Is my arrival here today the reason that you will move to Baghdad twenty years from now?"

Bashaarat smiled. "Coincidence and intention are two sides of a tapestry, my lord. You may find one more agreeable to look at, but you cannot say one is true and the other is false."

"Now as ever, you have given me much to think about," I said. I thanked him and bid farewell. 

For a moment I was unsure if I were dreaming or awake, because I felt as if I had stepped into a tale, and the thought that I might talk to its players and partake of its events was dizzying. I was tempted to speak, and see if I might play a hidden role in that tale, but then I remembered that my goal was to play a hidden role in my own tale. So I left without a word, and went to arrange passage with a caravan.

It is said that Fate laughs at men's schemes. At first it appeared as if I were the most fortunate of men, for a caravan headed for Baghdad was departing within the month, and I was able to join it. In the weeks that followed I began to curse my luck, because the caravan's journey was plagued by delays. The wells at a town not far from Cairo were dry, and an expedition had to be sent back for water. At another village, the soldiers protecting the caravan contracted dysentery, and we had to wait for weeks for their recovery. With each delay, I revised my estimate of when we'd reach Baghdad, and grew increasingly anxious.

Then there were the sandstorms, which seemed like a warning from Allah, and truly caused me to doubt the wisdom of my actions. We had the good fortune to be resting at a caravansary west of Kufa when the sandstorms first struck, but our stay was prolonged from days to weeks as, time and again, the skies became clear, only to darken again as soon as the camels were reloaded. The day of Najya's accident was fast approaching, and I grew desperate.

I solicited each of the camel drivers in turn, trying to hire one to take me ahead alone, but could not persuade any of them. Eventually I found one willing to sell me a camel at what would have been an exorbitant price under ordinary circumstances, but which I was all too willing to pay. I then struck out on my own.

It will come as no surprise that I made little progress in the storm, but when the winds subsided, I immediately adopted a rapid pace. Without the soldiers that accompanied the caravan, however, I was an easy target for bandits, and sure enough, I was stopped after two days' ride. They took my money and the camel I had purchased, but spared my life, whether out of pity or because they could not be bothered to kill me I do not know. I began walking back to rejoin the caravan, but now the skies tormented me with their cloudlessness, and I suffered from the heat. By the time the caravan found me, my tongue was swollen and my lips were as cracked as mud baked by the sun. After that I had no choice but to accompany the caravan at its usual pace.

Like a fading rose that drops its petals one by one, my hopes dwindled with each passing day. By the time the caravan reached the City of Peace, I knew it was too late, but the moment we rode through the city gates, I asked the guardsmen if they had heard of a mosque collapsing. The first guardsman I spoke to had not, and for a heartbeat I dared to hope that I had misremembered the date of the accident, and that I had in fact arrived in time.

Then another guardsman told me that a mosque had indeed collapsed just yesterday in the Karkh quarter. His words struck me with the force of the executioner's axe. I had traveled so far, only to receive the worst news of my life a second time.

I walked to the mosque, and saw the piles of bricks where there had once been a wall. It was a scene that had haunted my dreams for twenty years, but now the image remained even after I opened my eyes, and with a clarity sharper than I could endure. I turned away and walked without aim, blind to what was around me, until I found myself before my old house, the one where Najya and I had lived. I stood in the street in front of it, filled with memory and anguish.

I do not know how much time had passed when I became aware that a young woman had walked up to me. "My lord," she said, "I'm looking for the house of Fuwaad ibn Abbas."

"You have found it," I said.

"Are you Fuwaad ibn Abbas, my lord?" 

"I am, and I ask you, please leave me be."

"My lord, I beg your forgiveness. My name is Maimuna, and I assist the physicians at the bimaristan. I tended to your wife before she died."

I turned to look at her. "You tended to Najya?"

"I did, my lord. I am sworn to deliver a message to you from her."

"What message?"

"She wished me to tell you that her last thoughts were of you. She wished me to tell you that while her life was short, it was made happy by the time she spent with you." She saw the tears streaming down my cheeks, and said, "Forgive me if my words cause you pain, my lord."

"There is nothing to forgive, child. Would that I had the means to pay you as much as this message is worth to me, because a lifetime of thanks would still leave me in your debt."

"Grief owes no debt," she said. "Peace be upon you, my lord."

"Peace be upon you," I said.

She left, and I wandered the streets for hours, crying tears of release. All the while I thought on the truth of Bashaarat's words: past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully. My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I had learned had changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise. If our lives are tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living these tales that we receive their lessons.

Night fell, and it was then that the city's guardsmen found me, wandering the streets after curfew in my dusty clothes, and asked who I was. I told them my name and where I lived, and the guardsmen brought me to my neighbors to see if they knew me, but they did not recognize me, and I was taken to jail.

I told the guard captain my story, and he found it entertaining, but did not credit it, for who would? Then I remembered some news from my time of grief twenty years before, and told him that the Caliph’s grandson would be born an albino. Some days later, word of the infant's condition reached the captain, and he brought me to the governor of the quarter. When the governor heard my story, he brought me here to the palace, and when your lord chamberlain heard my story, he in turn brought me here to the throne room, so that I might have the infinite privilege of recounting it to you.

Now my tale has caught up to my life, coiled as they both are, and the direction they take next is for you to decide, Your Majesty. I know many things that will happen here in Baghdad over the next twenty years, but nothing about what awaits me now. I have no money for the journey back to Cairo and the Gate of Years there, yet I count myself fortunate beyond measure, for I was given the opportunity to revisit my past mistakes, and I have learned what remedies Allah allows. I would be honored to relate everything I know of the future, if Your Majesty sees fit to ask, but for myself, the most precious knowledge I possess is this: Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. 

That is all, but that is enough.