Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Gate of Heaven

This morning was like the morning of that first poem, the retreat in the guest house, ten years ago. The barn-that is, the garden house, which from my room seemed to me beautiful and mysterious-had become the very mystery in which I was hidden. It was the same hour. Perhaps the years were no more. The tired man was on his tower among the little boxes. There was a quilt for covering plants in a garden. It smelled of rats. Also the chicken houses had been moved. The outward orchard is all down. The wry trees are gone. The earth is sown with new grass.

Famous but unknown, tired but powerful, a man without virtue and without prayer, impotent, hungry, at peace, unable to speak, looking at the valley: Who is like unto God! God, my God, here is a traitor who loves You beyond speech! And yet I have no love. I have no moon, I have no valley.

I sat by the orchard heaters until I smelled all over of oil and flame. I saw the moon through the flame. Without heart, without brain, the senseless man has prayed for fire and apparently received none. Everywhere is beauty. Where are You, O my God? I was ashamed of singing on the road to the barn, but what else could I have done? Alive and dead I climb the glorious barn. The mud of my feet going up is the mud of my hands going down. I will go down more wretched than I went up because more glorious. This barn cannot be known. It is Mount Lebanon, where Father Charbel Makhlouf saw the sun and moon.

I leaned my chin upon the windowsill and prayed to You, my Lover, in the following terms:
"When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing.
Was not this a dainty dish
To set before the King?"

My God, Who is like You? How can I compare the visits of your children with the silence that dwells on the hills? Yet I have made their hearts suffer by loving them. I have defiled many lives with my impertinence. We have all gone away and have begun over and over to pray, and I believe conversation is a punishment for false mysticism. How can we help ourselves? But I am once again made clean by frost and morning air, here in the presence of the moon.

As long as I do not pretend I suffer, as long as I do not trade in false coin, nor claim that I have already disappeared-my brothers' prayers can always mend me. The windows are open. Let the psalms fly in. Prime each morning makes me safe and free. The Day Hours sustain me with their economy, by night I am buried in Christ. At 3 a.m. I wear the old white vestment and say the Mass de Beata. Through the gaps in my own prayer come the psalms of the Night Office that I discovered in the woods yesterday afternoon.

There, there is the crooked tree, the moss with my unspoken words, those pines upon that cliff of shale, the valley living with the tunes of diesel trains. Nobody knows the exact place I speak of and why should I tell them? For every man is his own Jacob, wakes up at the foot of his own ladder. And thus he arises in his own unrecognizable house, his gate of heaven.

What happens after that? Do you put down "The rest is silence" and close the book and sell it to the public? That would be a lie. For Jacob afterward married. His first wife, the fertile one, was ugly. He served fourteen years. He bred sheep. He fled from Rachel's father. His flocks drank from the well where Jesus later sat and spoke with my elder sister.

We too have all married over and over again, and yet we have no husband. But thank God for the hill, the sky, the morning sun, the manna on the ground which every morning renews our lives and makes us forever virgins.

Taken from "The Sign of Jonas" by Thomas Merton

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Morior Invictus

Morior Invictus - "In death, unconquered..."

I have been away from the wide world of weblogging for an extended summer hiatus. For those of you who might know me and care, Shannon, Lupe and I moved from the south side of Chicago to the south suburbs of Boston in June. I have taken a job as a consultant at a law firm which is working on the 9-11 litigation; although sadly leaving the University of Chicago and some great friends in Bridgeport. Compounded with this transition was the blessed birth of a healthy baby boy on Sept. 4. Jack Daniel is a handsome little guy and seems to have, thankfully, not only got his mom's good looks but her saintly personality.
I have had to put my translation on hold, and the frustration of giving it up has prevented me from blogging. Not to mention the fact that so much was happening in our lives, I didn't even know how to begin writing about it. And I clearly have had no time to write about or translate anything else. However, I have recently begun working on another paper for the University of Chicago on the concept of jihad in the sermons of Ali b. Abi Talib. Or more specifically, on the concept of piety in the Amir al-Mu'mineen's sermons on jihad. Being away from Hyde Park, and in the cooperative environment of the law firm in which I work, has made me realize the importance of writing "in a community." I have therefore decided to switch gears, temporarily, from my translation, (which I promised my shaykh I would finish and I will,) and begin publishing a few pages of this paper for the comments, questions and criticism of whomever may care to read and respond. And perhaps more personally important, to have an informal forum and journalistic medium to express my ideas, even if no one is listening.

The Concept of Taqwā in ‘Alī Ibn Abī Tālib’s Sermons on Jihād

"فإنَّ الجِهادَ بابٌ مِن أبوابِ الجَنَّةِ فَتَحَهُ ﷲُ لخاصَّةِ أوليائِهِ وهو لِباسُ التَّقوَى ودِرْعُ ﷲِ الحَصينَة ُ وَجُنَّتُهُ الوَثيقَةُ ."
“Jihād is one of the doors of paradise which God opens to chosen ones of His closest friends. It is a robe of piety, the impregnable armor of God and His trustworthy shield."

Because the four years of ‘Alī Ibn Abī Tālib's caliphate were marred by the first and the most ideologically divisive, civil war in Islam's history, it is not surprising that social and armed conflict are prominent themes in many of the sermons, letters and sayings collected in the Nahj al-Balāgha[1]- the vast majority of which were composed during this violent period of unrest in the early Ummah. However, ‘Alī's use of the word jihād, when exhorting his followers to enter into the brutish, human business of war (al-harb,) battles (al-malāhim,) and killing (al-qitāl,) is noteworthy. What are we to make of a quote like the famous one from ‘Alī’s twenty-seventh sermon, “On Jihād,” with which this essay began? What role does piety (taqwā) play in sermons that speak of combat? How does it change the tone of these speeches which were delivered before such gruesome battles?

Of course, it is a well known and well established fact that the Arabic root (j-h-d)’s semantic range of meaning includes not only "going to war," but just as often the "exertion of any pietistic effort" (al-ijtihād) or even "faithfully enduring some trial, tribulation or adversity" (al-majhada.)[2] After a close reading and literary analysis of passages, taken exclusively from ‘Alī’s sermons about going to war, this article will demonstrate that the concept of jihād therein is framed by the Amīr al-Mu’minīn’s even more copious exhortations to a piety (taqwā) which is rooted in the act of fearing God (taqā) and constantly remembering our own death's inevitability. This pious fear of God which makes a soldier unafraid to die is the moral quality that makes him so virtuous; and an example to be followed in the spiritual life of every Muslim. Of course, this thematic framing of jihād in the context of taqwā does not dilute the martial meaning of the word. It cannot be denied that the immediate, historical context of ‘Alī’s sermons on jihād were the very bloody battles of the first civil war. Instead, the use of religious language in ‘Alī’s speeches during the war augments our understanding of his definition of piety – as more than the mere possession of faith, but a committed willingness to take decisive action in that faith's defense. Indeed, the universal lesson of ‘Alī's sermons, appropriately classified as "calls to arms," is that we should all live with the kind of faith for which we are ready to die.
Piety clearly plays a leading role in ‘Alī’s sermons about going to war. And it dramatically changes the way we understand his concept of jihād in at least two ways. The first is literal and the second is allegorical. On the one hand, the Amīr al-Mu‘minīn’s use of religious language and emphasis on piety in his sermons on jihād affect our understanding of his justification and preparation for engaging in armed combat. This literal reading is perhaps one of the earliest examples of an Islamic just war theory. On the other hand, in an allegorical sense, the commander of the faithful’s sermons on jihād can be read as exhortations to all believers, men and women, young and old, to zealously pursue pious lives and daily combat forces of sin and evil which seek the corruption of human souls in the world. Jewish and Christian mystics have often read the military psalms of David in just such an allegorical way.[3]

This essay will deal with both the literal and the allegorical interpretations of ‘Alī’s sermons on jihād and describe the role piety plays in each. In the literal sense of these sermons and the historical context of the first civil war, I will demonstrate that ‘Alī’s emphasis on piety and moral virtue in his justification and preparation for war is one of the earliest examples of an Islamic just war theory (after the sayings and example of the prophet Muḥammad, of course.) In describing this literal interpretation of jihād, I will give examples of ‘Alī’s moral justification, physical preparations, and rules for engagement in armed conflict. In the allegorical sense of these same sermons, I will demonstrate that ‘Alī’s allusive use of religious and pietistic language in his exhortations to jihād opens the sermons up to another level of interpretation, one which calls all people to holiness by spiritually combating sin and evil on the battlefield of their own souls. In describing this allegorical interpretation of jihād, I will give examples of ‘Alī’s extensive use of metaphors (al-isti‘ārāt) (like the beautiful and oft-quoted, “Jihād is one of the doors of paradise, a robe of piety, the impregnable armor of God and His trustworthy shield”) which expand the semantic range of the orations and encourage interpretations that go beyond their immediate, literal meaning.

It is difficult to separate these two levels of meaning in ‘Alī’s sermons, because his eloquent use of figurative language is so common in them all. For this reason, I will divide my analysis of ʿAlī's sermons on jihād into three general themes: 1) on going to war and its justification; 2) on preparing and training for war; 3) and exhortations to jihād. And in exploring the role of piety in each of these three subjects, there will be occasion to describe both literal and allegorical interpretations of each sermon.
On Going to War and Its Justification:

Labīb Bayḍūn’s topical concordance of the Nahj al-Balāgha, published in Damascus in 1978, is an extremely helpful resource for students of ‘Alī Ibn Abī Ṭālib's sayings on a given subject. In selecting passages for this essay, I have relied heavily on the outline and verses which Bayḍūn provides in the eighteenth chapter, so candidly entitled: “On war (al-ḥarb,) battles (al-malāḥim,) and killing (al-qitāl.)” It is interesting that Bayḍūn does not include jihād in this chapter title even though the word appears frequently in many of the quotations which he cites therein. It is indicative of an essential difference between ʿAlī's use of the words war, battles and killing on the one hand, and jihād on the other. The former group of near synonyms refers to the savage, unfortunate behavior of humanity in its fallen state. But the word jihād is so semantically connected to a pious fear of the Lord (taqwa) that it elevates the word's meaning in both the literal and allegorical ways already described. In the literal sense, ʿAlī's calls for jihād differ from other battle cries because they are appeals for a just war waged in a virtuous manner. The religious weight of the word jihād in this tragic context reminds Muslims that even in the ruthless human business of war, there is an example of justice and virtue to be imitated. In the allegorical sense, this same religious weight of the word jihād appeals to the ancient scriptural meaning of a holy war fought on a spiritual battlefield where both angels and demons fight for and against human souls.

In his introduction to chapter eighteen, Bayḍūn says: "‘Alī, who was never defeated in battle, would not begin to fight until he called his adversaries to the truth (yada‘ū ilā- l- ḥaqq) and showed them proof by reminding them of God's signs. If they rejected (him) after this, (still) he was slow to go to war - wanting to extinguish dissension and avoid bloodshed, seeking tranquility, harmony and peace." [4] This prefatory remark reveals another important dimension of the word jihād as it is used in ʿAlī's sermons. Before a commander can justify going to war, he must sincerely converse with his enemies, honestly calling them to witness the validity and moral imperative of his message. From the sermons of the ‘Amīr al-Muʿminīn, we can distill three essential conditions which must be met before justly engaging in any war. They are the eloquent expression (balāgha), impassioned exhortation (da‘wa) and faithful witness (shahāda) of the truth. These three activities are not only pre-conditions of a just war. They are also the basic justification and ultimate goal of any war which is piously pursued.

[1] ‘Alī b. Abī Tālib (d.40/661), Nahj al-Balāgha, compiled by Sharīf al-Radī (d.406/1015),
edited by Husayn al-A‘lamī (Beirut: Mu’assasat al-A‘lamī li-l-Matbu‘āt, 2003).
[2] See Appendix I for a comprehensive study of the root (j-h-d) and its semantic range of meaning in ‘Alī's sermons collected in the Nahj al-Balāgha.
[3] Examples are too numerous to provide a detailed list at this time. Indeed, a whole book could be devoted to the subject in either one of the two traditions. However, St. Anthony of Egypt, St. John of the Cross and Thomas Merton are at least three examples of ancient, medieval and modern Christian mystics who would metaphorically read the psalms in such a way.
[4] Labīb Wajīh Bayḍūn, Taṣnīf Nahj al-Balāgha, (Damascus: Maktabah Usāma Karm, 1978), p. 231.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Desert's Seductive Charm: Part III

"فِتنَة ُ الصَحراءِ "
The Desert's Seductive Charm
A Novella by Aḥmad Abū Khanayjar
(Translated from Arabic by Khalil al-Wafa')

I don't know where this gentleman gets all this prattle!? He is recollecting ancient beliefs which were lively in the regions of the desert and the tribe in a day when dominion was held by ignorance and superstition. But today religion and science have completely vanquished ideas such as these; by which primitive minds confronted the universe in order to live in agreement with what was found to explain the natural phenomena which their comprehension were unable (to grasp) - like the reflection of the moon's image in water.
I think I know the motivation for this detail which he wants to add to his narrative. But this logic will drag him into numerous inconsistencies either with the original tale or with the events as they took place. Also, things being what they are, he has left out some (details,) like the moon's riding a camel on his descent to the desert.
As for the inconsistencies which I have in mind, it is the creation of two identical young men. This isn't possible. And also their being puritanically chaste, despite the fact that one of them – I will not be able to clearly say his name without reliving the struggle and causing the rivers of blood to flow again – was caught naked inside a woman's tent, who continues to swear to his virility. And had it not been the will of God for the wise men to intervene, things would have gone in a very different direction. And he, on account of this, reduced the number of heads of cattle from their herds and secretly transferred them to the herds of the woman, since her husband was away (at the time.) And this is at least one of the reasons which compelled them to leave for the market – to fetch a new male camel which could introduce new blood into their herds; since the family of the woman made it a condition that (they would) take every male. As for the old camel herd, I will not dwell on him, since he is like the waiter in the cafe. But I will reveal to you a secret. The two young girls who were mentioned at the well during the moment of the eclipse, one of them was no other than "Safiyya," their cousin.
But what is aggravating is that this council which he is holding by unfurling a tablecloth, sitting around and extensively lingering there - all of this is intended to create a distance from the events. But this will be over my dead body.

• • •
Allow me to move my feet to let the blood flow through them as I loose what binds them as a result of sitting in the previous council too long; so that I have the strength to complete all that I promised you in the way of "texture," and so that you are able to choose your own garment according to your own measurements, and people, everyone, can see it. I am the opposite of the emperor's tailor. I have not sought the refuge of a dark, remote room in which to place the loom. Instead, I have assembled the loom in broad daylight, facing the moon, in the open air, at the beginning, (from whence) the road forks and the side streets branch out like those which confronted Oedipus when he was returning home. But this is another story.
I'm talking to you!
My promise is still standing. I will finish the rest of the councils for you at the earliest opportunity. But now, let's go back to the two young men and their third, the husky camel, being led by his bridle calmly and obediently, passed from hand to hand. Or else they left the reins to him, as it walked between the two of them like a child between his two parents. (The camel) catching snippets of the conversation which was going on between them, displaying – from one moment to another – it's desire to participate (in the conversation,) by drawing their attention to himself by either getting a little ahead of them or falling behind to graze on some vegetation at the side of the road. And in each of these situations, one of the two young men would hurry to grab the bridle and pull the camel behind him.
As you can see....
The trip is calm, going along exactly according to plan and design. This is the point at which the roads begin to diverge, splitting into three paths:
The first goes straight in the direction of the tribal camps.
The second goes into the grazing fields, bypassing the tribes from behind. Indeed, it might take the un-experienced traveler into the depths of the desert.
The third goes straight into the vast wilderness, where there is (only) certain death and perdition. This third road passes between two huge boulders, to the right of which the second road passes and to the left of the two boulders, passes the desired track of the tribes and the camel race, whose appointed time was approaching.
The two of them smiled and their souls were happy when they saw the road diverging. So they let go of the rein of the camel, who no sooner felt the slackening of the bridle from them, then it started running towards the two boulders and knelt down between them. Bewilderment traced its lines in the eyes of the two young men when the camel seemed to them to be kneeling, burdened by the weight of his heavy load - the two boulders. His head facing the road of the vast wilderness. The camel had closed its eyes and started moving its mouth as it growled, a thin foam collecting around its nose and mouth. The two of them walked ahead in his direction fearfully. Each of them sat down on a boulder as night began to drop its curtain.

• • •
The origin of the story of the two boulders is that a man had lost his way in the desert on his camel, finding himself in so much trouble that he looked out over (tracts of his own) annihilation. So he put a pebble under his tongue, trying to squeeze water from it in order to combat the thirst and dryness of his mouth. While he was sleeping near his camel, he awoke to a strong uproar breaking out around him, and the gurgling like the gurgling of water flowing among rocks. He thought to himself, 'I must be dreaming, or else these are the first throws of death, appearing as a craving for water. But the camel pressed him close to his side, so he sat up.
It seemed as if a cyclone had uprooted (everything) after it struck the area around him, while the weather was returning to its tranquil state. He stood up and saw it, the Sesban oasis, rising up in the middle of the desert. He stood up awe-struck, for despite all the stories which he had heard, he had never believed in the existence of a hidden oasis in the desert. He had always thought it was one of the fantasies and illusions of travelers along similar desert paths, by which they pass the time and make a long journey feel short. But now here it is, in front of him, just as the stories described.
It is an oasis whose dimensions are un-apprehensible to the eye from a distance. A wall of Sesban bushes, in all their verdant splendor, encircles it. From thence is derived its name. The uproar was coming from inside it. He went forward cautiously, followed by his camel. When the sound of water struck both their ears, the man stopped, wondering: Is water the bait, leading them to the trap of entering the oasis from which no one exits or returns?
The man noticed from his position that the weather was beginning to get colder and the moon was becoming more radiant. His eyes glimpsed something like watermelon vines extending their ends outside the wall of thick Sesban. He approached it to be sure of what he saw. He reached his hand out to the leaves of the plant to see if they were alive or if he was suffering the agonies of an incipient death as it now was tricking and deceiving him. But his hand collided with a fruit, pushing the leaves aside with his hand. The size of the fruit startled him.
He didn't think any more. He grabbed his camel and made him kneel between two fruits. No sooner did he pass the end of the net underneath them, then he cut them with his knife from the plant and he bound the ropes of the net to the saddle. He was moving eagerly and with fervently, afraid of being exposed whereupon the people of the oasis would capture him and drag him inside where his certain perdition lurks. He struck the camel cruelly on its backside, so the camel rose, struggling to its feet, complaining of its poor treatment which he had never received from his master before. With one leap, the man mounted the camel, spurring him on its side. It was as if the camel sensed his danger, so it ran far away from the oasis.
The stories say: "The oasis faces the tribe's camps." So the only thing the man had to do was turn his back on the oasis and travel until he found himself among his own people.
The camel started out quickly. Then, gradually, his pace started to slacken until he stopped completely where some say that the fruit started to get heavy. The sun was on the verge of rising when the camel knelt down. The man thought: (I) must have to leave the watermelons here – in the desert – and go with the camel, to save myself first and then return with the camel another time to transport the one proof of the existence of the city of Sesban.
He tried to free it from the net, but he couldn't. So he was forced to untie it from the saddle and leave it. On his way, he laid markers to lead him when he returned.
But when he returned with a band of his brothers and cousins, the two watermelons had turned into two boulders around which hung ropes of the net.
To Be Continued . . .

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Desert's Seductive Charm: Part II

"فِتنَة ُ الصَحراءِ "
The Desert's Seductive Charm
A Novella by Aḥmad Abū Khanayjar
(Translated from Arabic by Khalil al-Wafa')

Even though I agree with him about this beginning, as one of the many beginnings with which it is possible to start; especially since it is more distinctive than other, more feeble beginnings. For there are (many) possibilities for the beginning, like: "On the day of the eclipse...or the day of the race....or on the day of infamy....or...." But he is free, so let him begin how he wants. However, the gentleman then must permit me to record some imperfections afflicting this beginning which almost lends itself to attracting the eye of the reader and the ear of the hearer:
1) Why has he still not named his two protagonists at this point (in the story,) even though the story is realistic and the characters are well-known to everyone who lives in these parts? Or at least, he's heard their story of crossing the desert roads; (the same roads) which spread their story and publicized it among the caravans traveling between the tribes and their markets.
And what is he getting at? Be on guard my dear friend, the reader! The first harbinger of magic is suggestion and the commingling of events which we are unable to separate. But I will reveal their names to you to spite him: Abel and Cain.
2) He is stuck on the waiter in the cafe without a clear goal. What is his role? What does this gentleman want exactly? 'Tension,' as the saying goes? If the role of the waiter is to increase the tension of the events and also serve to link them, then is this plausible?
3) Finally, he should have indicated what Cain purchased as the two were leaving the market where he bought a dagger. Why is he concealing this information?

• • •
The road to the tribe's camps is long, taking a full seven days and seven nights. So I have to let them walk, between them that camel which seized their vision and their hearts. And it was walking leisurely, like a bride ambling towards her groom.
The tale has been tranquil up to this point and the journey is long. On account of this, I will let them cross the road of desire slowly. And I will pause briefly to reveal what is ambiguous to you in the (yarn) I have been weaving for a short time. In front of me are seven nights, with seven councils. In them, I will narrate for you everything that will open the locks on events. But, in a measure. . . .

The First Council :
Know then! They are paternal and maternal cousins at the same time. They were born on the same night after seven years of torturous waiting. After six, barren years had passed in the marriages of the two brothers to the two sisters, throughout which they had tried everything and every medicine, hopelessness began to creep inside them. But the female soothsayer seemed to be a solution and final hope.
They went to her. She said after she threw her seashells on the sand between them: "Seven years, and seven years, and the full moon since the moment of its appearance at the pool of water, each of the two sisters would lie sleeping, naked, spreading her legs to the rays of the moon, following it wherever it goes. At the same time, the two naked brothers are in the water the whole time and at the moment of the moon's setting, two men come out of the water, and each one would have sex with his wife. Then, wrapping her in his gown, he returns with her to his tent, carefully (preventing) the air from touching her."
After arguing and quarreling, protesting and hysteria, everyone accepted. The longing for a son and the need for one who would bear the name before they disappeared into the desert sands was stronger than any other warning. So they went to the pool of water and carried out the instructions of the soothsayer exactly.
Nine months later, two children were born. It was as if they were twins, impossible to tell them apart. And to ward off the evil eye, they gave each of them the name: Hasan.

The Second Council :
They grew in exact proportion to one another, becoming two strong, young men. Life pulsed powerfully in their veins. They were never separated from one another, even sleeping, a night here and a night there. But what most worried people was their lack of interest in participating in the camel race which the tribe annually undertook four nights after celebrating ʿAshūrāʼ.
The tribe believes that the moon on an ancient night resembled the moon on this night – the night of the full moon. (Then, the moon) descended from on high when he saw a nymph from among the earth's daughters, treading lightly near the pool of water. He descended without her sensing him as he walked on the desert sands towards her. She had already taken off her robe, wanting to bathe, when she sensed him. So she dove quickly into the pool to hide her nakedness.
The moon stood confused when he couldn't find her. But the sand betrayed her secret to him, so he descended behind her and caused her to conceive by his rays. Then she came out (of the water) and gave birth to the original grandfather and grandmother of the tribes. But the daughters of the jinn noticed the moon's repeated descent to the pool, so they tried to kidnap and trap him, to keep him from the pool. So he ascended back into the sky and never repeated the descent. For he keeps trying to free himself from the snares of the jinn's daughters, who for their part keep trying to capture him again.
In imitation of this day, the tribe holds a camel race. And in the evening, the celebrations begin with the victor, who has the right to choose any bride he wants. Even if she is engaged to her cousin, still she becomes his right. For this is the custom.
These two were averse to participate, but what happened on the day of the eclipse... excuse me.... If you want to know what happened, wait for me in the next council.

The Third Council :
When years passed without the two seeming to have a desire to participate in the race, and also showing no interest in marriage, as was customary, the unease which began insignificant and weak started to grow, until it became a nightmare hanging over the hearts of fathers and mothers.
Thus, despite their nature which was superior to their peers in the field of work and (despite) the number of heads (of cattle) which they owned: sheep, goats and camels; still, their shunning of the time-honored custom made them the subject of innuendos, conversation and rumors. All of this compelled the mother/aunt to ask them on that particular night about the reason for their aversion to women?
They understood from the beginning what the mother/aunt was getting at with her choice of the word, "women," instead of the word, "marriage." And when it seemed to them by the tone of (her) voice that there was a strong accusation being leveled against their manhood, or doubts abounded concerning them, one of them said: "We never found a women like you." The mother/aunt laughed, but ignored (his) circumvention (of the question.) Determined to know the answer, she said unequivocally: "Women all seem the same in bed."
In this way, the intimations increased in maliciousness and prominence. So one of them responded harshly, "But we never found someone who compelled us to leave one another, taking us to bed!"
The mother/aunt was reassured a little, even though she was intent on getting the young women's confirmation by enticing them to her tent. Perhaps . . . maybe . . . what she wanted was verification from the other direction.
So in the night on which the moon was eclipsed, the young women went out with tambourines and cymbals, singing and dancing to help the moon escape from the snares of the jinn's daughters who veiled him. And they set out in the direction of the well, laughing with the naiveté of girls and the frivolity of their intellects.
Among the maidens were two girls, causing all eyes to become fixed on them and a heavy silence to descend among the young men. This silence came commensurately to the two of them, causing them to turn towards one another and withdraw at a distance. Then they ran in the direction of the shepherd's fields, where the old, camel herd was pasturing their flock. They told him briefly about their desire to participate in the camel race and win it. The man laughed at length, taking his time to know (fully) what had happened. Then he counseled them. From there, the two set out in the direction of the distant market.

To Be Continued . . .

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Desert's Seductive Charm: Part I

"فِتنَة ُ الصَحراءِ "
The Desert's Seductive Charm
A Novella by Aḥmad Abū Khanayjar
(Translated from Arabic by Khalil al-Wafa')

• • •
I will take for you: a thread from the sun, a thread from the air, a thread from the earth, and a thread from the water and fasten them to the tip of my spindle, spinning it thoroughly, until (the four) become a single thread, strong and long, whose beginning is indistinguishable from its end. Then, on my loom I will lay it to weave a unique fabric.
Pay attention!
Stitching now means "plot." So arouse your senses, examine the "texture" of the garment closely, see the brilliance of its colors! I will encourage you to try it on and have it fitted to your size. Pass your fingers over it, feel the surface and its soft, velvet-like quality.
You are the only one that the garment will fit, relative to its size. Its length and its width are equivalent to your height and girth. So the garment resembles Cinderella's glass slipper. For what I'm making now is not like magic. Rather, it is magic by its very nature.
Don't consider me a liar or a cheat like the emperor's tailor, who claimed to weave a garment which only the most intelligent could see. But then a child screamed: "The emperor is naked!" For my garment, all will be able to see and all will be able to touch. What's more, I will promote this manner of dress as suitable for everyone; each according to his or her (own) measurements, and also ....
Let's now begin our story. All you need to do is be patient and kind with me.

Who does this gentleman think he is? About what threads and garments is he speaking? He must want to trap us in the throws of his alleged "clothes." The story he's telling is only a stratagem. (caveat emptor) I'll be on my guard from the beginning, (when) his game was claiming that it was magic.
But, this gentleman must know that magic only comes about through gullibility, and desiring that, he is trying to mislead (us) by it, with his violation of reality and its rules. All of this in order to make us see it his way and at that very moment, he will control us completely. Many things around us are eclipsed by obscurity, controlling them. So fear and intimidation are talking to us. For this reason, that's why he came; knowledgeable of our own limited experience, pretending that he has the power to reveal what is veiled in mystery in a strange land. And this is just the beginning, oh noble reader!
Guard yourself against his actions. They are actions closest to the jugular. Like stealing kohl from the eye, or turning a rope into a snake, or making a man fly in the air, or walk on water, or cutting a young girl in half with a saw . . . and other such actions. Avoid them!
Before he begins his story, let me make a correction: I read in one of the books, I don't remember where or when, neither the name of the book nor its author – that the naked emperor in that particular story represents a naked truth. So let him tell me, this noble magician, where and when was the truth naked?
Pardon me . . . Have I fallen under the control of his magic?

• • •
At dawn, the two of them dismounted in the area of the market just as the old shepherd had commissioned them. They walked around a little then stopped at a cafe to drink green tea, but their eyes were fixed on the camel merchant's yard.
Anxiety struck their sides, blowing violently in their beings. Sitting down didn't settle them, prompting the waiter in the joint to ask them, as he offered them the tea of their choice, "What is the reason for your visit?" Indeed, it seemed to him by their dress and their manner of speaking, they must be foreigners. One of them smiled and the other replied: "We were nearby here when we heard the clamor of the market place rising, and we wanted some tea."
The waiter smiled and went away. But his features betrayed his suspicion, and he continued watching them cautiously throughout the period of their sitting there. He said to himself: "You can't believe twins."
The two of them definitely felt the glances of the waiter spying on them. So they stood up after some time and they circled the market without stopping in front of anything in particular until they were no longer given the feeling that someone was spying on them, if indeed someone should be. And when they were walking around only leisurely, the two of them were on guard at the same time of anyone who came in contact with them. (Fearing) his hand might reach the coin purse, while they were inattentive, stealing it without their knowing.
The tour (of the market) took a long time. They passed the camel market during it and they returned cheerfully to the joint where the waiter received them with the same suspicious smile. They asked him for green tea and they sat waiting for it calmly.
They didn't utter a single word throughout the period of their sitting there, seeming to be only concerned with the taste of the green tea, and the heat in the air. And at the same time, they smiled at everyone who entered the cafe. But on account of the great similarity between them and their being strangers, the eyes of those entering the cafe were drawn towards them. Still they smiled to ward of the persistent glances and their astonished looks.
Despite all of this, the waiter didn't fail to notice that their ears were listening to the conversations of passing customers about selling and buying, about the market and its strength. He said to himself: 'I bet they want something, but what is it?'

• • •
When the market started to disperse, the two of them got up, bought a water skin and two sacks of food which they left in the protection of the waiter at the cafe. Then they went directly to the camel market. The directions of the old man were clearly phrased: "Be present in the market early to become acquainted with its condition, without expressing their intention to buy, because the brokers in the market would come to know their desires, as well as the amount of cash in their possession. So (the brokers) would continue to lay in waiting, trying to sell to them at the highest price. And they, the strangers, would not be able to counter the tricks of the brokers and their little games."
The camel herd broke the camel's chains when the two of them entered. Their eyes passed around the yard, quickly examining all the camels there in order to choose the requested animal. Their vast number and various sizes confused their ability (to choose.) They turned towards each other, were they in a hurry to begin?
Before the one of them who was again tying his headscarf with a trembling hand answered, he caught out of the corner of his eye one of the brokers coming towards them. He grabbed the forearm of his companion to alert him. So his friend became aware (of what was going on) and the two of them decided to move quickly before the broker got to them; for they didn't know how they would escape him. No sooner did one of them move his foot, than a camel rushed up behind them, standing between them as if it was suddenly frozen. The head of the camel was facing the setting sun and his short bridle was dangling from his muzzle. As a result of the one camel's outburst, all the other camels were startled and the two of them separated instinctively out of fear that the camels would trample them in the commotion of the one camel's recalcitrance. But that one (camel) stood between them and they saw the animal's shadow cast behind it. It seemed like that of a legendary, colossal beast. The two calmly approached the camel which stood waiting for them and they grasped its bridle.

• • •
They didn't debate the price set by the camel herd, who came running after his camel in pursuit of it. The directions said: "Get to know the camel herd and buy from him." The brokers tried to interfere, but the two of them with great firmness kept them at a distance from bidding and profit. They paid the camel herd the price and they led their camel towards the cafe.

• • •
The waiter, who had been watching them all day, continued guarding their possessions at the end of the day, helping them load the goods and the gifts which they had bought onto the back of the camel. He said: "Excellent! An excellent camel!"
He went up with them until they left the market. One of them took out some cash and gave it to him. The waiter smiled. They said: "A good boy." They passed in front of him, but he called out to them, saying: "Be on guard! Don't let the current tranquility of the beast fool you." He laughed as he returned to the cafe and the two of them set out in the direction of the tribe's camps.

To Be Continued . . .
Quotation of the Day
Web content provided by The Free Dictionary

Call for Peace & Openness

Word of the Day
Web content provided by The Free Dictionary

This day in history
Web content provided by The Free Dictionary