The twenty-third day of the crossing – the truth of the desert

The caravan was a universe in itself. Family, work, friends are some of the tiny universes that co-exist in the lives of everyone, with their particularities, difficulties, pleasures, lessons, and other evolutionary features specific to each person. This is what I was thinking about on that morning. I was seated on the sand, a bit detached from the caravan, with a cup of coffee in my hand. It was dawn. I had just said my prayer and watched the caravanner doing the morning training of his hawk. My thoughts ran free, as I recalled all the events that had occurred during that crossing of the desert, which was a little under halfway. We were on the twenty-third of the forty days the journey would take to reach the oasis, where I intended to talk to a wise dervish, “who knew many secrets between heaven and earth.” I thought not only about the facts that had occurred, which were the source of valuable lessons, but also about the people I had met. Each one of them was unique and had a beauty of their own. It was interesting to notice that some displayed tremendous power, while others revealed their frailties. As an assiduous student of philosophy and with the many metaphysical experiences I had undergone, I believed myself to be quite knowledgeable about the human soul. At this moment, while I was entranced by my thoughts, I had a pleasant surprise. The beautiful woman of lapis-lazuli eyes appeared and sat next to me. She didn’t say a word, only smiled. Excited, I immediately started a conversation, telling her about the observations I had made about people. I told her about those who seemed self-assured and knew their place in the world and those who were lost and had not yet built their personality. 

Even though she remained silent, the beautiful woman with blue eyes looked at me with interest. I decided to expand my explanation pointing to the good examples found in the caravan. I mentioned a rich rug trader who traveled with a huge retinue of employees, who was very firm in giving orders and even harsh in dealing with people, but apparently everything worked fine around him. I also mentioned a pretty Spanish woman, a well-known reporter of a TV station, self-assured and outgoing, and how our fellow travelers were fascinated by her. There was also a very funny guy; in fact, he was a good comedian. He was always surrounded by people who were delighted to hear and laugh at his funny stories. He had a tremendous ability to promptly respond to any comment or remark one would make, or to tell an interesting story out of that. These were three instances of successful people.

On the other hand, there was a young pilgrim who was also traveling to meet the wise dervish. He had always a book in his hand and was never tired of asking everyone about everything. He seemed not to know about anything. I said that perhaps because of his young age, he seemed to be aimless in the world. I spoke about a widow with no children who was always ready to help anyone who suffered any type of ailment. I said that her worrying about others was a way of filling out the presence of a family. It wasn’t necessarily an act of love, but an occupation. Finally, I spoke about a caravan staff member, always attentive to the requests of the travelers. He lived as if he did not have a life of his own; maybe because his was a miserable life, obliging others was a way he found to take part in their life, of showing himself useful to the world and to find some value in himself. They are examples of frail, disoriented people.

The beautiful woman with blue eyes asked if I had lived with these people. I told her I did not, but I ensured her I was an excellent observer. She just shook nod head, as if saying she understood what I meant, and made no further comment. Then, came the word the caravan was about to leave for another stretch of the crossing. The day was uneventful. While riding my camel, I continued to think about the formation of personality, about the strengths and weaknesses or the human soul. I noticed that for most of the journey, the beautiful woman with lapis-lazuli eyes rode next to the caravanner, speaking to him at length. 

As usual, we stopped by late afternoon, to set up camp and spend the night. Before supper was served, I received the invitation to eat with the caravanner. At times, for supper, he would invite some of the caravan travelers to his tent, in order to forge a bond among all the travelers. The tent was very simple, with no luxury. Many pillows were scattered around, and many candles kept it illuminated, which gave it a cozy atmosphere. I felt comfortable when I went in. I was the first one to arrive. The caravanner greeted me with a sincere smile and asked me to make myself comfortable. The flickering light of the candles highlighted the patterns of the pillows and rugs; the stars that could be seen from through the entrance of the tent helped create an ambience of magic at night. 

In the middle of the tent, a huge round table was placed over some pillows. On it, food and beverages. Nothing sophisticated but with excellent aspect. Incense perfumed the environment. Soon, the other guests started to arrive. Much to my surprise, one by one, there came the rich rug trader, the popular comedian, the widow, the young student, the pretty TV reporter and the attentive member of the staff. All those I had mentioned to the beautiful woman with lapis-lazuli eyes in the morning. The caravanner, our host, introduced us all by our names, with no other personal or professional information. They were all kind in their greetings. It didn’t take long, and the rich rug merchant started to state that, in fact, he should not be on that crossing because he had important business pending in Marrakesh, which depended on him being there. The pretty TV reporter, who was travelling to prepare a piece about the oasis, revealed she wished to return as soon as she could, so she could cover the awards ceremony of a famous film festival in France. The popular comedian did not miss the chance of telling a funny story about him and a friend, an internationally acclaimed actor, who got involved in an embarrassing situation. There is no question those were important people, well-adjusted to their lives. Each one of them made a point of making it clear early on. Without realizing it, the three started a dispute for the attention of the others. I had an odd feeling that the tent was becoming smaller and smaller at each passing minute.

I thought of telling them about my advertisement agency or my studies of philosophy and metaphysics, but I realized there was no room for me to expose my life in that tent; mine was a life devoid of any interest for them. Together with the widow, the caravan staff member, and the young pilgrim, all we could do was to listen to the other three. At a given moment, when the rug trader asked the caravan staff member to prepare him a plate, the reporter took the opportunity to ask him to fill up her glass. The caravanner intervened to bring to their attention that the employee was a guest just like everyone else. He politely asked for everyone to help themselves, so that they could equally enjoy the evening and the company of one another. There was a feeling of discomfort that people tried to disguise.

I noticed that the trader, the reporter and the comedian were not interested in listening to what the others had to say, but paid attention to the slightest pause in the conversation to start a story of theirs, trying to become the center of attention. The tent was small and the air was heavy to breathe, something usual in places where we find hypertrophied egos and bashful souls. This is when, without warning or introduction, the beautiful woman with lapis lazuli eyes came in. We all turned to her. With a flute, she extracted one of the sweetest melodies I recall having ever heard. While she played, she gently danced around the guests. The music spoke to us all. I could feel the music notes cleansing the dense atmosphere, renewing it for another, lighter and more subtle.

After a few minutes, the woman with blue eyes stopped playing the music and sat next to the caravanner, without saying a word. Something had changed. An embarrassing silence ensued in the tent. Next, almost at the same time, the trader, the reporter and the comedian excused themselves, claiming different reasons to return to their tents. The caravanner turned to his guests and said: “I thank you very much for your presence in my tent, I am very pleased with that. If you allow me, I would like to say a prayer to thank the good spirits of the desert for the evening we had.” Because no one objected, he got a small drum that was next to him and recited a prayer. Each word was accompanied by a rhythmic beat of the drum. Desert drums were unique. Everyone became entranced by the words and the rhythm of the drum. The environment changed, and I could feel the people slightly changed. 

Once he was finished, the caravanner asked: “If possible, I would like that each one of you leave me a gift before leaving.” In face of puzzled eyes, he explained: “I would like a gift that reflects a detail of your life. But just not anything. I would like to know something that has never been disclosed to anyone. For instance, something that you would like to have done but could not, a fear you have not admitted or a secret you have never confessed. That, to me, is like receiving a priceless piece of each one of you.”

The drum continued to be played, with rhythmic beats in synch with the words.

The well-known TV reporter said she had always been very bold, had always done anything she felt like, and she had no regrets about anything. Hers was a fulfilling life. The rich rug trader said he was fearless; he was not afraid or scared of anything. The comedian said he was a transparent person, who had nothing to hide or disguise. They were unanimous in saying that they had never held back what they thought. Anyway, they were the strong, determined people I had initially thought. 

However, I was not so sure now as I had been in the morning, but I did not know why. It was like feeling something I could not identify what; like my subconscious mind sent endless messages to my conscious mind.

The widow, in turn, told us that when her husband and son departed to the next sphere of existence, she had at first a feeling of existential abandonment, as if something had ceased to exist within herself. Then, looking into this more carefully, she realized it was not a void, but an excess. It was about all the love she had always given, but now she had no one to receive it. The love she had for her beloved ones could not be wasted. It needed other recipients to be relocated. Little by little, she came to understand the power of her love. From her own experience, she knew that there is no medication in the pharmacy for pains of the soul. Love, however, is the best balm there is, and with no contraindication. By using her love to relieve the suffering of the soul of others, many of whom she did not know, somehow she felt her heart connected to theirs, even if she would lose contact with them. She said her life acquired a broader dimension, as if the world could find shelter in her heart. She was only afraid of running out of love to share. However, she believed that this would not happen because she had realized that the more love she shared, the more love she had. This was her strength, a strange, unshakable power. She added she wished she had discovered that earlier, and that her dream was to run an orphanage.

The caravan staff member said he has always lived from doing what was considered lesser jobs. However, he had realized that despite the major feats that made the newspaper headlines and the acts of heroism done by brave and decorated people, it was the lesser jobs that formed the pillar of humankind. He had learned that the world could live without heroes but could not go without the humble chores performed by simple people. With amazing self-esteem and no remnant of pride or vanity, the said he did not care how people would see him, as he considered himself a true bridge builder among the hearts around the world. This fulfilled his soul. He confessed his dream was to study engineering and learn how to build brick and mortar bridges, because those made of love he already mastered.

The young pilgrim said he loved knowledge, because it was an important tool for one to be freed from suffering. An instrument to shed light on personal and universal shadows. As he applied theory into practice, life became lighter, difficulties turned into lessons and the problems disappeared. It was like everything and everyone were his masters. He was tremendously grateful for that. His dream was studying to become a teacher and to serve as an instrument to disseminate knowledge and its endless healing capabilities. However, he confessed he wasn’t ready yet; he was but an apprentice. The path was long, but he crossed it with no hurry, because he enjoyed being on it.

Silence fell on the room. All that was solid was beginning to melt. It was my turn. Before I uttered a sound, the TV reporter burst out crying. After a few minutes, calmer, she said she was afraid, too afraid. Her entire career on TV was based on her physical beauty. However, time is a relentless executioner of the skin and muscles. Young, pretty, talented reporters, as she once was, arrived at the station all the time, as eager as she was in the past. She said that one’s appearance was very important for TV. She added that every night she felt like she had taken another step towards the scaffold. She said her program was about a relentless reporter investigating the truth of the facts. This was far from the actual scenario. In fact, she was an insecure, frustrated person. She had never been happy in a love relationship, because she suspected men were not in love with her, but with the image she portrayed. She avoided having children in order not to jeopardize her career; there was a huge void she did not know how to fill. Because she could not be seen as a frail person, in order not to stain the persona she had built, she repressed herself. With her eyes filled with tears, she said she felt like an imposing manor, with beautiful architecture and a garden at the front entrance; but empty inside, devoid of life in its rooms.

Immediately after, with his face turned to the floor, the comedian confessed he had always lived off the inheritance his parents had bequeathed him. He had never worked, he never had to. However, he felt people built an existence he imagined he had received ready-made. That was an honest mistake. With the passing of time, a sense of uselessness grew in him. He saw people writing another page of their history on each passing day, whereas his book was blank, with no letter written. Because he felt unable to engage in such a process, he thought easier to tell stories he created or adapted from the life of others as if they were his. This is why his stories, apparently funny, were filled with irony and sarcasm, and not just good-humored. He felt the need to ridicule others; by lessening others, he felt bigger. Deep down, his popularity did not stem from good seed.

Finally, as in a ritual of collective catharsis, the trader said that he, too, wanted to open his heart. He would share a secret. He said that even from a young age, he had made a lot of money from his business. His fortune changed his life. He became afraid of losing all he had amassed. He spent his days watching his money, so that it wasn’t stolen. He was a “slave” of his money, a person suspicious of everything and everyone. He grew old as a harsh, strict person. His children could not stand working with him and became estranged. With his gaze lost on the stars, he admitted his pleasures were just what money could buy. But he confessed it was impossible to be happy without trusting people.

The caravanner stopped beating the drum.

Silence fell over the tent. So absolute it was, it seemed it was shouting. Everyone was visibly emotional. The beautiful woman with blue eyes used the flute to sing yet another song. Little by little, the music appeased the emotions, making them aligned with good reasoning. At the end, the caravanner said: “This evening has been unique. An authentic magic ceremony of the desert, in which, more than revealing yourself or disclosing a secret, you all managed to face yourselves, embracing yourselves, understanding your quest and what should be changed in you. This is a gift for me, and a blessing for each one of you.”

In silence, one by one, we all said our goodbyes with gestures and left the tent. I did not go to my tent; I knew I would not be able to fall asleep. There were many ideas I had to process in my mind. I moved away and sat on the sand, under a cloak of stars. It didn’t take long and the woman with lapis-lazuli eyes came close. She handed out the flute she had played that evening, to give me as a gift, and explained: “Put it at the altar you have at your home, when you go back. It is sacred, because it will always remind you never to confuse the frailty of appearance with the strength of essence.” She paused briefly before continuing: “Pride is a mask that hides the emptiness; vanity is the apparel of fleetingness; arrogance is the wall that keeps weakness; strictness is unawareness of forgiveness; suffering is denial of love.” 

She turned to the stars and added: “Be careful when you wish you had someone else’s life. Sometimes, those who have everything are destitute of material possessions; those who appear to be big shots are nothing; those who give orders, don’t understand anything. True beauty and power are hidden from the surface. They are typical of the depth of the soul.” 

Then, she completed: “While it is apart from the soul, reality will be far from the truth. Truth does not survive without love. Away from love, one does not achieve life’s fortune and light.”

Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.

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