Twenty years later: the two wise men

Once upon a time there was a wise man called Sidi Mehrez. He was very annoyed with the place where he lived, a beautiful town on the Mediterranean Sea where men and women lived in depraved fashion, and money was the only value that mattered. As Mehrez was also a saint and worked miracles, he decided to enfold Tunis in his long scarf and toss it into the ocean.

Buildings began to tumble, the ground rose up, the inhabitants started to panic on seeing that they were being hurled towards their death. In despair, they decided to ask for help from a friend of Mehrez, called Sidi Ben Arous. Ben Arous managed to convince the strict saint to interrupt the destruction, but ever since then the streets of Tunis have been rough and uneven.

I stroll through the bazaar of this African city, borne by the winds of this pilgrimage to celebrate the 20th anniversary of my first walk to Santiago in 1986. I am accompanied by Adam Fathi and Samir Benali, two local writers; fifteen kilometers away stand the ruins of Carthage, which in the remote past was capable of challenging powerful Rome. We discuss the epic of Hannibal, one of the city’s warriors: the Romans expected a sea battle (the two cities were separated only by a few hundred sea kilometers), but Hannibal braved the desert, crossed the straits of Gibraltar with an enormous army, marched through Spain and France, climbed the Alps with soldiers and elephants, and attacked the Empire from the North. He defeated all the enemies in his path and then suddenly, without anyone knowing exactly why, he stopped before Rome and did not attack it at the opportune moment. The result of this indecision was that Carthage was scored off the map by the Roman ships.

We pass by a beautiful building: in 1754, one brother murdered another and their father decided to erect this palace to house a school that would keep alive the memory of his murdered son. I comment that by doing so, the murdered son would also be remembered.

“That’s not quite true,” answers Samil. “In our culture, the criminal shares the blame with all those who allowed him to commit the crime. When a man is executed, the one who sold him the arm is also responsible before God. The only way for the father to correct what he considered a fault was by changing the tragedy into something that can help others: instead of vengeance limited to punishment, the school has enabled instruction and wisdom to be transmitted for over two centuries.”

On one of the doors of the old wall hangs a lantern. Fathi comments that I am a well-known writer, whereas he is still struggling for recognition:

“Here we have the origin of one of the most famous of Arab proverbs: “light only illuminates strangers.”

I reply that Jesus made the same comment: no-one is a prophet in his own country. We always tend to lend value to what comes from afar, without ever recognizing all the beauty that is around us.

We go into an old palace that has been transformed into a cultural center. My two friends begin to explain to me the story of the place, but my attention is completely distracted by the sound of a piano and I begin to follow it through the labyrinths of the building. I end up in a room where a man and a woman, apparently oblivious to the world, are playing the “Turkish March” for four hands. I remember that some years ago I saw something similar – a pianist in a shopping center, engrossed in his music, paying no attention at all to the people who passed by talking loud or with their radios turned on.

But here there are only the three of us and the two pianists. I can see the expression on both their faces: joy, sheer and utter joy. They are not there to impress an audience, but rather because they feel that this is the gift that God has given them to talk with their souls. Likewise, the souls of Adam, Samil and Paulo also end up talking to one another, and we all feel closer to the meaning of life.

We listened in silence for an hour. At the end we applauded, and when I returned to the hotel I thought for a while about that lantern.

Yes, it may be that it only shines on the stranger, but what difference does that make when we are possessed by this vast love for what we do?

The next text will be posted on the 23th of May.

P.S: Dear reader,

During this journey, that is filling my soul with very interesting experiences, one of the most magical moments comes every night when I read the comments posted on this blog. Even though I can’t answer all of you, I want you to know that it’s very important to me to know that I’m not alone on this path. Thank you so much for your support and for the words and ideas that are now engraved on my heart.

Paulo Coelho