If Abi-Eshu were here today, he would no doubt be astounded by our dependence on the internet. He would balk at the amount of time we spend on Google+, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and the rest. Email and Snapchat would be something he could not even begin to understand. The ease with which we communicate with one another these days was not even dreamed about back in *Abi-Eshu’s day.
Or is that so?
Abi-Eshu has been to market in the cart his father, Abi-Karu, has built. The cart rolls along on Abi’s latest invention, the wheel. On his outward journey, the cart held 4 reams of fine cloth, woven by his mother, Aya. Now it carries some grain, a pig and “something to change your life, my friend.”
All the way home, Abi-Eshu has frowned and wondered how to tell his father what happened when he met a boy called Tizkar, at the market. As he steers the cart, pulled by its two, long horned oxen, down the bumpy track and into the communal yard in which their little house sits, he sees his father, standing by the door.
“Abi-Eshu,” calls his father, waving his hands in a frenzy, “Come here, come here, quickly.”
Obediently, Abi-Eshu stops the cart, leaps off, barefoot, and races to the spot where his father stands. As he draws near, he sees his father is wringing his hands in agitation.
“What ails you father?” asks Abi-Eshu in concern.
“Oh Abi-Eshu, ten days ago I sent messages to my brothers, Ekur, Amar-Sin, Naram-Sin and Shulgi, inviting them to a party to celebrate my birthday, on the night of the Full Moon.”
Abi-Eshu nods, he knows all about the party his father is planning. Hasn’t he just gone to market to collect the pig for the roast they have planned?
“And who did you give the message to Father?” he asks.
“I gave it to the lad who keeps the goats. He said he would run all the way to the next village and deliver it to the Baker who has a donkey and would take it to the next village where a man they call Uan, would take it on its final journey to each of my brothers.”
“And there is a problem?” Abi-Eshu prompts.
“Yes, it seems that when Uan got the message, he gave the message to four of his best runners who then took it to each of my brothers. It is a disaster.”
Abi-Eshu begins to understand. His father will not admit that times are changing and now that the family has spread far and wide, he needs to make use of the new clay tablets to send messages, not rely on word of mouth.
“So, what message did you send, Father?” Abi-Eshu asks.
“My message was straight forward enough,” replies his father, “I said,
“Abi-Karu, his wife and son would like to invite you to a party. Roasted pig and Beer. You are invited on the night of the full Moon; Come and dance!”
His father runs gnarled fingers through his long, grey hair and shakes his head,
“It was simple,” he begins, “then, this morning, before the cocks crowed, I answered the door to a messenger sent back from Amar-Sin. The messenger stood there on the step and said he’d come directly from my youngest brother. I asked him what Amar-Sin had said and he replied,
“Good to hear your wife is the star attraction. But boasting is not good. I love Rum so I will be there but I hope the moon is not blighted.”
“There, what do you make of that?” Abi’s father asks, spreading his palms wide.
“Very odd,” says Abi-Eshu with a frown.
“That is not the last of it either,” says Abi-Karu, “a second messenger was hard on the heels of the first. He brought word back from Naram-Sin. His answer was,
“Give your wife my best wishes, I hope she recovers quickly. So sorry to hear your plight. I hope the blindness is temporary. Don’t worry, I wont chance it.”
“Even stranger,” comments Abi-Eshu.
“Yes and would you believe, a third messenger arrives before lunch from Shulgi,”
“And this one says?”
“I have not heard of a carrot faction causing problems before but these uprisings are growing more common. Yes will keep well clear. Thank you for the warning and I hope your blindness is temporary.”
“Most odd!” Abi-Eshu agrees, checking his father’s eyes for any signs of blindness.
His father sits down on the step, his head in his hands.
“There is more,” he whispers, “The messenger from Ekur, my eldest and most revered brother, told me,
“It is unwise to allow a camel in the house or grounds brother. I will stay well away until the repairs have been made. Better get some help in if you cannot see. I did not know the moon could blind. I agree. What are the chances?”
“It would seem your messages did not get through unscathed, Father,” suggests Abi-Eshu, tentatively.
“I fear you are right son. Not everyone remembers as easily as I. Who knows if the replies are correct either? I shall just have to borrow a horse tomorrow and travel to each of them in turn. It will take me a week but I can get round all of them before the Full Moon I am sure.”
Abi-Eshu thinks the idea ridiculous.
“I can go Father,” he offers.
“You? No, no, the message might be garbled again, I cannot risk it,” Abi-Karu objects.
Abi-Eshu puts the cart away and walks back to the house. He leaves the “something to change your life, my friend,” sitting in the cart.
The sun goes down and still, the package sits there.
‘So, tell me,” says Aya, as they sit round the table that night, eating their dinner of turnips and rice, how did you do in town today, Abi-Eshu?”
Abi-Eshu sucks in his breath and coughs.
“Well, mother, I took the three bales of fine green cloth that you gave me and I showed them to the men in the market. They said it was very fine cloth indeed and my mother should be proud. They gave me a pig and three bags of grain in exchange,” he pauses,
“And?” asks his father, recognising that his son is holding something back, Abi-Eshu shrugs, the bones of his shoulders clearly defined beneath his shirt.
“You don’t eat enough,” says his mother, pushing the dish of mashed turnips towards him.
“Let the boy speak,” orders his father,
Abi-Eshu spoons another mound of turnip from the dish, eats it and looks at his father,
“Father, the boy called Tizkah, gave me something in exchange for the exquisite gold cloth mother gave me, that he says will change the way we live,” he says.
Abi-Karu laughs, harshly,
“What could change the way we live?” he asks.
“It is in my cart,” Abi-Eshu tells him.
“Then fetch it.” Abi-Karu is growing impatient. Bad enough that his message has been so changed en route that the replies make no sense and no one is coming to his party and now his son tells him he swapped a precious bale of cloth for…what?
Abi-Eshu opens the barn door and runs to the cart, leaping onto its wheel so he can reach inside. The “something to change your life, my friend,” sits there, wrapped in a brown sack cloth. Curious now, Abi-Eshu unwraps the mystery package and stares at it. It is a pile of soft clay wrapped in damp gauze together with a small sharp instrument.
Abi-Eshu stares at the clay and his spirits sink. His father will not be pleased. How can he explain how he came by these things and lost the bale of exquisite gold cloth? Dejected, he picks up the bundle and begins to walk towards the house.
“Abi!” calls someone close by, “Abi-Eshu it is I, Tizkar!”
Turning, he sees a familiar face. It is the face of the boy in the market who gave him the tablets of clay. Perhaps Tizkar will take them back and he will be saved from disgrace. He moves towards the fence where the other boy is waiting.
“Tizkar, you have given me some clay but what can I do with this?” he holds up the gauze wrapped bundle and waits for Tizkar to answer.
“Abi-Eshu, you have much to learn,” Tizkah says with a grin, “I am here to help you, I come from your Uncle, Ekur.”
With that, Tizkah pulls out a tablet from beneath his shirt and points to the symbols it contains.
The symbols mean nothing to Abi-Eshu until Tizkar translates them. Then he begins to see. This means the sun; this means the moon; this means running and this means hunting. He begins to translate for himself, using his intuition.
“You are a natural,” breaths Tizkar in admiration.
Abi-Eshu puffs up with pride.
“It is a message for my father,” he marvels, “When the sun is high in the sky I will go hunting but I will be with you at the Full Moon, that is my Uncle’s seal, I recognise it.”
“Yes, your Uncle Ekur enjoyed the joke when he got the garbled message but he understood it well enough. He will be coming to your father’s party.”
“He is coming to the party? My father will be so pleased,” breathes Abi-Eshu.
“Yes, and now you must send new invites to the rest of your family. Your Uncle Ekur says it is the way of the future, to send messages on clay. See those tablets I gave you in exchange for the beautiful cloth?”
“The exquisite cloth,” corrects Abi-Eshu.
“Yes, exactly. Well, with that sharp pointed reed, while the clay is soft, you can inscribe your message. It will be interpreted more easily than the whispered words of a dozen messengers. You must keep the clay moist until the message is finished though, just as I have. Wet the gauze and wrap it around, like this. Keep it in a cool place and you have enough to send a hundred messages.”
“Thank you Tizkah, and thank my Uncle Ekur, for me too,” says Abi-Eshu, much cheered.
“You can thank him yourself at the party,” laughs Tizkah,
Abi-Karu stares, suspiciously, at the pile of clay but he listens to what Abi-Eshu tells him and eventually, his face loses its worried frown and his eyes light up.
Together, they take a lump of clay and press it flat, being careful to keep it damp as they work. The sharp reed digs into the soft clay and Abi-Eshu makes his first mark. He draws a picture of their house with a wheel on it. That will enable everyone to know whose house it is. He draws a pig on a spit and a group of people dancing. He fashions the image of his father, choosing Abi-Karu’s remarkably long hair as a means of identification. Finally, he draws a full moon.
“It is amazing,” says his father finally, “Look, there is my house and here come the family. Will they understand it?”
“They will father, I am sure,” says Abi-Eshu, and begins work on the next.
He is right. When the messengers hand over the tablets, Uncle Ekur grins broadly,
“A party, on the night of the full moon at my brother’s house. There will be a roasted pig and dancing,” he chortles, ” I am slightly disappointed that there was not a camel on the rampage but I am delighted to accept the invitation to the party. So, my brother has learnt to write messages. Well, what are the chances?”
Amar-Sin stares at the message for a few minutes but he too understands it.
“I am happy that the moon is not blighted after all and I would love to come to the party,” he says.
Naram-Sin is much relieved,
“Ah, so Abi-Karu’s wife is well, that is a big joy to me. I did not think she was the violent sort and certainly not given to boasting. I am happy my brother is not blind and I will be at the party on the night of the full moon.”
Shulgi laughs uproarously,
“Oh my goodness, so there was no carot faction then? I shall be at the party too,” he says, “I love to dance.”
On the night of the full moon, Abi-Karu’s brothers arrive with their families.
“Tell me,” Abi-Karu asks of them, “What message did you all get from Uan’s messengers?”
Amor-Sin speaks first,
“Abi-Karu’s wife in action, would like to invite you to a party. Boasted big and beer. You will be delighted at the blight of the full moon. Rum and chance.”
There is a gasp from Abi-Karu but he turns to another brother,
“And you, Naram-Sin?”
“I heard: Abi-Karu’s wife in traction, fights at a party. Boasted big, oh dear. Karu blinded by the light of the full moon. Don’t chance it.”
A carrot faction fights at the party. Best steer clear. Karu blinded by the light of the new moon. Won’t chance it.”
“And finally, you, Ekur?”
” A camel in action wrecks the party. Best steer clear. Karu blinded by the light of the new moon. What are the chances?”
When they had all finished laughing, Abi-Karu patted them all on the back,
“I will embrace the new ways now,” he told them and held up a tablet of clay to prove it.
Abi-Eshu sits with his clay tablet and marks the day’s events upon it. His reed pen digs into the soft surface and the picture appears. Today he has been to market and danced and talked with his aunts and uncles and his many, many cousins. Today he has begun a diary. He dreams of a time when his messages might be sent into the air, across the countryside, appearing as though by magic at their recipient’s door. He dreams of seeing faces on his clay tablet, real faces, of speaking into the tablet so that his very thoughts can be heard.
Abi-Karu sleeps soundly under the full moon because his brothers have come to his party.
Abi-Eshu places his brand new diary beneath his bed and dreams.
So, the next time you wonder if social networks and mobile phones are a bad thing and waste our time, remember how amazing they can be and think of Abi-Eshu and how he dreamed…
*Abi-Eshu probably lived in Ancient Mesopotamia, circa 3,500BC
P.S. I don’t suppose Abi-Eshu ever considered the dangers of predictive text…