The Sign

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?

Thank God the room is packed for my talk in this African country.  I am to be introduced by two local intellectuals; we have met before – one of them has a two-minute text, the other has written a quarter-hour thesis on my work.

The coordinator very carefully explains that it will be impossible to read the thesis, since the meeting is to last 50 minutes at most.  I imagine how hard the intellectual must have worked on his text, but I think that the coordinator is right: I am there to talk to my readers, who are the main reason for the meeting.

The lecture begins.  The introductions last five minutes at most, so now I have 45 minutes for an open dialogue.  I say that I am not there to explain anything and that it would be interesting to try to hold a dialogue.

The first question comes from a young woman: what are the signs that I speak so much about in my books?  I explain that this is an extremely personal language that we develop all through our life by making mistakes and getting things right, until we understand when God is guiding us.  Somebody else asks if it was a sign that brought me to this far-off country.  I answer yes, I have been on a 90-day journey to celebrate the 20th anniversary of my first pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

The conversation continues, the time passes quickly, and I have to bring the talk to an end.  From amid 600 people I choose a middle-aged man with a bushy moustache to ask the final question.

And the man says:

“I don’t want to ask any questions.  I just want to say a name.”

And he says the name of a small hermitage located in the middle of nowhere thousands of kilometers from where I find myself, where one day I placed a plaque giving thanks for a miracle.  And where I returned before this pilgrimage to ask the Virgin to protect my steps.

I no longer know how to continue the meeting.  The following words were written by Adam Fethi, one of the two writers who made up the table:

“And suddenly the Universe in that room seemed to have stopped moving.  So many things happened: I saw your tears.  And I saw the tears of your sweet wife when that anonymous reader said the name of a chapel lost somewhere in the world.

“You lost your voice.  Your smiling face grew serious.  Your eyes filled with timid tears that trembled on the edge of your eyelashes as if apologizing for being there without being invited.

“I was there too, feeling a knot in the throat and not knowing why.  I looked for my wife and my daughter in the audience, they are the ones I always look for when I feel on the brink of something I don’t understand.  They were there, but their eyes were fixed on you, silent like everyone else there, trying to lend you support with their eyes, as if eyes could support a man.

“So I tried to concentrate on Christina, asking for help, trying to understand what was going on, how to end that silence that seemed infinite.  And I saw that she too was crying, in silence, as if you were notes of the same symphony, as if your tears were joining the two of you despite the distance.

“And for long seconds there was no longer any room, no audience, nothing at all.  You and your wife had parted to a place where no-one could follow you; all that existed was the joy of living all this, which was told only in silence and emotion.

“Words are tears that have been written.  Tears are words that need pouring out.  Without them no joy can shine, no sadness can come to an end.  So, thank you for your tears.”

I should have told the young woman who asked the first question – about signs – that this was one of them, affirming that I found myself in the place where I should be, at the right moment, despite never properly understanding what took me there.

But I think that was not necessary: she must have realized.

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