Stories & Reflections
Nabil Alaihi, age unknown, Bedouin
It made me very happy to know that Athena had kept a photo of me in a place of honour in her apartment, but I don’t really think what I taught her had any real use. She came here to the desert, leading a three-year-old boy by the hand. She opened her bag, took out a radio-cassette and sat down outside my tent. I know that people from the city usually give my name to foreigners who want to experience some local cooking, and so I told her at once that it was too early for supper.
‘I came for another reason,’ she said. ‘Your nephew Hamid is a client at the bank where I work and he told me that you’re a wise man.’
‘Hamid is a rather foolish youth who may well say that I’m a wise man, but who never follows my advice. Mohammed, the Prophet, may the blessings of God be upon him, he was a wise man.’
I pointed to her car.
‘You shouldn’t drive alone in a place you don’t know, and you shouldn’t come here without a guide.’
Instead of replying, she turned on the radio-cassette. Then, all I could see was this young woman dancing on the dunes and her son watching her in joyous amazement; and the sound seemed to fill the whole desert. When she finished, she asked if I had enjoyed it.
I said that I had. There is a sect in our religion which uses dance as a way of getting closer to Allah – blessed be His Name. (Editor’s note: The sect in question is Sufism.)
‘Well,’ said the woman, who introduced herself as Athena, ‘ever since I was a child, I’ve felt that I should grow closer to God, but life always took me further away from Him. Music is one way I’ve discovered of getting close, but it isn’t enough. Whenever I dance, I see a light, and that light is now asking me to go further. But I can’t continue learning on my own; I need someone to teach me.’
‘Anything will do,’ I told her, ‘because Allah, the merciful, is always near. Lead a decent life, and that will be enough.’
But the woman appeared unconvinced. I said that I was busy, that I needed to prepare supper for the few tourists who might appear. She told me that she’d wait for as long as was necessary.
‘And the child?’
‘Don’t worry about him.’
While I was making my usual preparations, I observed the woman and her son. They could have been the same age; they ran about the desert, laughed, threw sand at each other, and rolled down the dunes. The guide arrived with three German tourists, who ate and asked for beer, and I had to explain that my religion forbade me to drink or to serve alcoholic drinks. I invited the woman and her son to join us for supper, and in that unexpected female presence, one of the Germans became quite animated. He said that he was thinking of buying some land, that he had a large fortune saved up and believed in the future of the region.
‘Great,’ she replied. ‘I believe in the region too.’
‘It would be good to have supper somewhere, so that we could talk about the possibility of-‘
‘No,’ she said, holding a card out to him, ‘but if you like, you can get in touch with my bank.’
When the tourists left, we sat down outside the tent. The child soon fell asleep on her lap. I fetched blankets for us all, and we sat looking up at the starry sky. Finally, she broke the silence.
‘Why did Hamid say that you were a wise man?’
‘Perhaps so that I’ll be more patient with him. There was a time when I tried to teach him my art, but Hamid seemed more interested in earning money. He’s probably convinced by now that he’s wiser than I am: he has an apartment and a boat, while here I am in the middle of the desert, making meals for the occasional tourist. He doesn’t understand that I’m satisfied with what I do.’
‘He understands perfectly, and he always speaks of you with great respect. And what do you mean by your “art”?’
‘I watched you dancing today, well, I do the same thing, except that it’s the letters not my body that dance.’
She looked surprised.
‘My way of approaching Allah – may his name be praised – has been through calligraphy, and the search for the perfect meaning of each word. A single letter requires us to distil in it all the energy it contains, as if we were carving out its meaning. When sacred texts are written, they contain the soul of the man who served as an instrument to spread them throughout the world. And that doesn’t apply only to sacred texts, but to every mark we place on paper. Because the hand that draws each line reflects the soul of the person making that line.’
‘Would you teach me what you know?’
‘Firstly, I don’t think anyone as full of energy as you would have the patience for this. Besides, it’s not part of your world, where everything is printed, without, if you’ll allow me to say so, much thought being given to what is being published.’
‘I’d like to try.’
And so, for more than six months, that woman – whom I’d judged to be too restless and exuberant to be able to sit still for a moment – came to visit me every Friday. Her son would go to one corner of the tent, take up paper and brushes, and he, too, would devote himself to revealing in his paintings whatever the heavens determined.
When I saw the immense effort it took her to keep still and to maintain the correct posture, I said: ‘Don’t you think you’d be better off finding something else to do?’ She replied: ‘No, I need this, I need to calm my soul, and I still haven’t learned everything you can teach me. The light of the Vertex told me that I should continue.’ I never asked her what the Vertex was, nor was I interested.
The first lesson, and perhaps the most difficult, was: ‘Patience!’
Writing wasn’t just the expression of a thought, but a way of reflecting on the meaning of each word. Together we began work on texts written by an Arab poet, because I do not feel that the Koran is suitable for someone brought up in another faith. I dictated each letter, and that way she could concentrate on what she was doing, instead of immediately wanting to know the meaning of each word or phrase or line.
‘Once, someone told me that music had been created by God, and that rapid movement was necessary for people to get in touch with themselves,’ said Athena on one of those afternoons we spent together. ‘For years, I felt that this was true, and now I’m being forced to do the most difficult thing in the world – slow down. Why is patience so important?’
‘Because it makes us pay attention.’
‘But I can dance obeying only my soul, which forces me to concentrate on something greater than myself, and brings me into contact with God – if I can use that word. Dance has already helped me to change many things in my life, including my work. Isn’t the soul more important?’
‘Of course it is, but if your soul could communicate with your brain, you would be able to change even more things.’
We continued our work together. I knew that, at some point, I would have to tell her something that she might not be ready to hear, and so I tried to make use of every minute to prepare her spirit. I explained that before the word comes the thought. And before the thought, there is the divine spark that placed it there. Everything, absolutely everything on this Earth makes sense, and even the smallest things are worthy of our consideration.
‘I’ve educated my body so that it can manifest every sensation in my soul,’ she said.
‘Now you must educate only your fingers, so that they can manifest every sensation in your body. That will concentrate your body’s strength.’
‘Are you a teacher?’
‘What is a teacher? I’ll tell you: it isn’t someone who teaches something, but someone who inspires the student to give of her best in order to discover what she already knows.’
I sensed that, despite her youth, Athena had already experienced this. Writing reveals the personality, and I could see that she was aware of being loved, not just by her son, but by her family and possibly by a man. I saw too that she had mysterious gifts, but I tried never to let her know that I knew this, since these gifts could bring about not only an encounter with God, but also her perdition.
I did not only teach her calligraphy techniques. I also tried to pass on to her the philosophy of the calligraphers.
‘The brush with which you are making these lines is just an instrument. It has no consciousness; it follows the desires of the person holding it. And in that it is very like what we call “life”. Many people in this world are merely playing a role, unaware that there is an Invisible Hand guiding them. At this moment, in your hands, in the brush tracing each letter, lie all the intentions of your soul. Try to understand the importance of this.’
‘I do understand, and I see that it’s important to maintain a certain elegance. You tell me to sit in a particular position, to venerate the materials I’m going to use, and only to begin when I have done so.’
Naturally, if she respected the brush that she used, she would realise that in order to learn to write she must cultivate serenity and elegance. And serenity comes from the heart.
‘Elegance isn’t a superficial thing, it’s the way mankind has found to honour life and work. That’s why, when you feel uncomfortable in that position, you mustn’t think that it’s false or artificial: it’s real and true precisely because it’s difficult. That position means that both the paper and the brush feel proud of the effort you’re making. The paper ceases to be a flat, colourless surface and takes on the depth of the things placed on it. Elegance is the correct posture if the writing is to be perfect. It’s the same with life: when all superfluous things have been discarded, we discover simplicity and concentration. The simpler and more sober the posture, the more beautiful it will be, even though, at first, it may seem uncomfortable.’
Occasionally, she would talk about her work. She said she was enjoying what she was doing and that she had just received a job offer from a powerful emir. He had gone to the bank to see the manager, who was a friend of his (emirs never go to banks to withdraw money, they have staff who can do that for them), and while he was talking to Athena, he mentioned that he was looking for someone to take charge of selling land, and wondered if she would be interested.
Who would want to buy land in the middle of the desert or in a far-flung port? I decided to say nothing and, looking back, I’m glad I stayed silent.
Only once did she mention the man she loved, although whenever she was there when tourists arrived, one of the men would always start flirting with her. Normally Athena simply ignored them, but, one day, a man suggested that he knew her boyfriend. She turned pale and immediately shot a glance at her son, who, fortunately, wasn’t listening to the conversation.
‘How do you know him?’
‘I’m joking,’ said the man. ‘I just wanted to find out if you were unattached.’
She didn’t say anything, but I understood from this exchange that the man in her life was not the father of her son.
One day, she arrived earlier than usual. She said that she’d left her job at the bank and started selling real estate, and would now have more free time. I explained that I couldn’t start her class any earlier because I had various things to do.
‘I can combine two things: movement and stillness; joy and concentration.’
She went over to the car to fetch her radio-cassette and, from then on, Athena would dance in the desert before the start of our class, while the little boy ran round her, laughing. When she sat down to practise calligraphy, her hand was steadier than usual.
‘There are two kinds of letter,’ I explained. ‘The first is precise, but lacks soul. In this case, although the calligrapher may have mastered the technique, he has focused solely on the craft, which is why it hasn’t evolved, but become repetitive; he hasn’t grown at all, and one day he’ll give up the practice of writing, because he feels it is mere routine.
‘The second kind is done with great technique, but with soul as well. For that to happen, the intention of the writer must be in harmony with the word. In this case, the saddest verses cease to be clothed in tragedy and are transformed into simple facts encountered along the way.’
‘What do you do with your drawings?’ asked the boy in perfect Arabic. He might not understand our conversation, but he was eager to share in his mother’s work.
‘I sell them.’
‘Can I sell my drawings?’
‘You should sell your drawings. One day, you’ll become rich that way and be able to help your mother.’
He was pleased by my comment and went back to what he was doing, painting a colourful butterfly.
‘And what shall I do with my texts?’ asked Athena.
‘You know the effort it took to sit in the correct position, to quieten your soul, keep your intentions clear and respect each letter of each word. Meanwhile, keep practising. After a great deal of practice, we no longer think about all the necessary movements we must make; they become part of our existence. Before reaching that stage, however, you must practise and repeat. And if that’s not enough, you must practise and repeat some more.
‘Look at a skilled blacksmith working steel. To the untrained eye, he’s merely repeating the same hammer blows, but anyone trained in the art of calligraphy knows that each time the blacksmith lifts the hammer and brings it down, the intensity of the blow is different. The hand repeats the same gesture, but as it approaches the metal, it understands that it must touch it with more or less force. It’s the same thing with repetition: it may seem the same, but it’s always different. The moment will come when you no longer need to think about what you’re doing. You become the letter, the ink, the paper, the word.’
This moment arrived almost a year later. By then, Athena was already known in Dubai and recommended customers to dine in my tent, and through them I learned that her career was going very well: she was selling pieces of desert! One night, the emir in person arrived, preceded by a great retinue. I was terrified; I wasn’t prepared for that, but he reassured me and thanked me for what I was doing for his employee.
‘She’s an excellent person and attributes her qualities to what she’s learning from you. I’m thinking of giving her a share in the company. It might be a good idea to send my other sales staff to learn calligraphy, especially now that Athena is about to take a month’s holiday.’
‘It wouldn’t help,’ I replied. ‘Calligraphy is just one of the ways which Allah – blessed be His Name – places before us. It teaches objectivity and patience, respect and elegance, but we can learn all that-‘
‘-through dance,’ said Athena, who was standing nearby.
‘Or through selling land,’ I added.
When they had all left, and the little boy had lain down in one corner of the tent, his eyes heavy with sleep, I brought out the calligraphy materials and asked her to write something. In the middle of the word, I took the brush from her hand. It was time to say what had to be said. I suggested that we go for a little walk in the desert.
‘You have learned what you needed to learn,’ I said. ‘Your calligraphy is getting more and more individual and spontaneous. It’s no longer a mere repetition of beauty, but a personal, creative gesture. You have understood what all great painters understand: in order to forget the rules, you must know them and respect them.
‘You no longer need the tools that helped you learn. You no longer need paper, ink or brush, because the path is more important than whatever made you set off along it. Once, you told me that the person who taught you to dance used to imagine the music playing in his head, and even so, he was able to repeat the necessary rhythms.’
‘If all the words were joined together, they wouldn’t make sense, or, at the very least, they’d be extremely hard to decipher. The spaces are crucial.’
‘And although you have mastered the words, you haven’t yet mastered the blank spaces. When you’re concentrating, your hand is perfect, but when it jumps from one word to the next, it gets lost.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘Am I right?’
‘Absolutely. Before I focus on the next word, for a fraction of a second I lose myself. Things I don’t want to think about take over.’
‘And you know exactly what those things are.’
Athena knew, but she said nothing until we went back to the tent and she could cradle her sleeping son in her arms. Her eyes were full of tears, although she was trying hard to control herself.
‘The emir said that you were going on holiday.’
She opened the car door, put the key in the ignition and started the engine. For a few moments, only the noise of the engine troubled the silence of the desert.
‘I know what you mean,’ she said at last. ‘When I write, when I dance, I’m guided by the Hand that created everything. When I look at Viorel sleeping, I know that he knows he’s the fruit of my love for his father, even though I haven’t seen his father for more than a year. But I …’
She fell silent again. Her silence was the blank space between the words.
‘… but I don’t know the hand that first rocked me in the cradle. The hand that wrote me in the book of the world.’
I merely nodded.
‘Do you think that matters?’
‘Not necessarily. But in your case, until you touch that hand, your, shall we say, calligraphy will not improve.’
‘I don’t see why I should bother to look for someone who never took the trouble to love me.’
She closed the car door, smiled and drove off. Despite her last words, I knew what her next step would be.
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