The twenty-sixth day of the crossing – a factory in the desert

It was a different day. We had aligned our camels to begin the march when it was still dark. The sun emerged from behind the dunes. At that time, when the caravan would normally wake up, we had been marching for about three quarters of an hour already. The purpose was to reach a smaller oasis on our way, to get a supply of water and provisions. There was a huge lake of fresh, clean water at this oasis. On its banks, there were a number of small family-run factories of excellent weavers set up in tents. The rugs had beautiful patterns, and were made with the use of unique, difficult-to-do stitches, using an ancient local technique passed on from one generation to another. Many rug traders who travelled with the caravan did their business at that oasis, purchasing rugs to resell. From that point they returned to Marrakesh, led by some members of the staff. The rest of the caravan would move on towards the largest oasis of the desert, where there were other weavers, who used different stitching techniques. I, along with some other pilgrims, intended to meet a wise dervish “who knew many secrets between heaven and earth.” We had left earlier on that day, so that we could arrive by midday, giving the caravan enough time to get the supplies. Because it took some time to collect all it needed, we would spend the night at that oasis.

At high noon, we saw the huge lake from a distance. It did not take long for us to be greeted by the hospitable residents of the oasis. Some tents operated as restaurants, and offered typical dishes, good for a change from the ordinary caravan meals. I had lunch and then went to visit the factories and see the rugs. People were very nice; the factories were rudimentary; the rugs were beautiful. I spent a good amount of time visiting the tents. By late afternoon, I noticed a tent located at a distant end of the lake. There was no other tent close to it. I asked a man if that tent was also a weaving facility. He looked at me for a moment and shook his head, saying he didn’t know. I thought it odd; at the same time, I became more curious. I asked once again, this time to a woman. Without looking at me in the eyes, she just said it was not worth it to go over there. Needless to say, I did.

I had to walk some 10 minutes. It was a simple tent, yet neat and clean. An older man with darker skin was making an herbal infusion for a tea. Having his back to me and without turning around, he probably felt my presence there, because he invited me to join him in a cup. I accepted. This is when he turned and smiled. Just like his hair, his teeth were of a pure white, something seldom found in someone his age. He grabbed a handful of other herbs, and burned them as incense. A delicious scent spread around the tent. Upon his suggestion, I sat back on a comfortable pillow. He sat on a wooden stool next to me and lit a pipe, while waiting for the tea to be ready. I told him I was visiting the rug manufactures at the oasis. Although I knew the answer was going to be negative, I asked if he also wove rugs. The old man shook his head no and said: “I have a factory of joy.”

I thought it odd, and said I had not understood. He patiently explained: “People believe they can buy joy.” He shrugged and added: “They are delusional”. He paused and explained: “They mix joy with fun. To be with the family, to meet friends, to sing and dance are some of the wonderful things life offers us. They are good to the heart and I recommend them. However, they are fun. Joyfulness is different.”

I asked him to go further in his explanation. The old man kindly obliged: “I can have fun every day, there is no contraindication. However, that does not mean I will be a happy man. I can be pleasant, polite and even funny, to the point of making whomever is next to me laugh. However, none of this makes me a happy man.”

I told him he was being contradictory. If joy could not be sold, it made no sense for him to have a factory of joy, as he would have no asset to sell. The old man explained: “Yes, you are right. In fact, I help people set up their own factory of joy. I have a factory that makes factories of joy.” I thought it odd. 

Suspicious, I asked him how much he charged. I was baffled when he told me the price. It was almost the price of a camel. A camel, because it is extremely useful in the desert, is highly appreciated. I thanked him, but I refused the offer. The old man did not insist. On the contrary, he remained as kind as usual. He stood up, took the herbs out of the infusion and poured the tea in two china cups that were placed on a silver tray, carefully arranged. It was delicious. I asked if the residents of the oasis would go often to his tent. The old man told me that none of them went there. I asked if he had many clients. The old man was disarmingly honest: “Very few. At the most, one every two or three years.” I told him that such a small clientele was due to the high price he charged. He agreed: “I believe so too”, but then he made a remark: “On the other hand, because people do not know about joy, they don’t give it its true value.”

I disagreed. I said there wasn’t a single person who did not acknowledge the importance of joy. The looked at me with sympathy and questioned: “I don’t doubt it, but it’s an abstract importance. How to understand the actual value of something we don’t know or that we have so little experience with in our lifetime that our memories about feeling or sensing it are numb?”

I became silent for some moments. Those words had struck me in a way I had not yet experienced. I recalled the difference between fun and joy that the old man had mentioned at the beginning of the conversation. Silently, I asked myself if I knew joy. About fun, I had no doubt. I said that if it weren’t so expensive, I would buy a factory of joy for me. I told him I was afraid I would not be able to manufacture the joy I expected. I added the risk was high, because it would depend on personal skills I did not know whether I possessed. The old man smiled, as if expecting such a remark, and made me a proposition: “You will pay only if you are happy with the outcome.” I said that happiness is a subjective, variable concept. The old man agreed: “Yes, therefore, the risk is all mine.” It was then I realized my king was trapped at a corner of the chessboard. Checkmate! 

As I could not refuse, I brought to the attention of the old man that the caravan would leave early next morning. He said he had plenty of time. He stood up and left the room, to return soon after with a drum. The desert drum. A well-known ritualistic instrument used to alter the state of consciousness, allowing us to travel to fantastic places; quite often, to our inner core. Flower gardens of which we have fond memories and are always willing to return; dark basements we wish to forget and that, for this reason alone, should be revisited to be cleaned, aired and illuminated. Basements are also part of the self’s dwelling place. 

I knew that. However, I was also aware that the path must be properly crossed so that we are not imprisoned in a cell without bars. That happens often, and there are some jails worse than other. One must be careful.

The old man asked me not to be afraid. He would be my guide; the engineer of a factory of joy. There was something in him that conveyed kindness one could not explain. I recalled the chameleons of the desert. No, the old man was not a chameleon. I trusted the love that emanated from him. Upon his guidance, I closed my eyes and let myself be enveloped by the intoxicating drum rolling. The drum seemed to talk and lull my heart. After a little while, time vanished. My heart pulsated in synch with the drum, as if they danced together.

The old man asked me to remember a day I felt really happy. The first recollection I had would be the best. I mentioned the birthday party when I turned 12. It had been at my grandpa’s home. All my school friends went. We played ball and had a lot of fun. My parents were still together; everyone was happy. That night, when I went to bed, I felt so happy I was overflowing with joy. The old man said I should remember that day anytime I wanted to cheer up a sad day. That’s what recollections are for, and also to show that if it happened once, it could happen again. Suffice that I set my recollections in motion.

I asked if these recollections were a factory of happiness. The old man answered: “No. They are only instruments for your well-being, they are important to add color to sad moments. But only to add color. They cannot serve as an escape from reality. To overcome sadness, compassion is required regarding everyone and in understanding oneself.”

I recalled next that soon after that party, my parents split up. I remember their fighting, and that on my vacation I was sent to an aunt’s countryside home. Those were sad days, filled with insecurity and fear. I said I would try to remove those recollections from my mind. The old man corrected me: “No. Running away from our memories means running away from ourselves. They are part of our life; we must only be reconciled with them. Do not try to forget or repress them. Embrace them with love. If they came to your mind, it is because they yearn for healing, they are ready to begin the treatment. You must understand that your parents, for reasons of their own, were not happy in their marriage. And you are not to blame.” I interrupted him and said that had been a very hard moment for me. The old man explained: “Understand that the hardships you went through helped forge you what you have become and made you stronger. When we overcome an intense suffering, we find out it is possible to overcome all other pains. The steel is better tempered under intense heat. The old man taught: “All that happens in our life is for the best. Absolutely everything.”

Why shouldn’t we forget the sad moments? I wanted to know. The old man continued with his explanation: “Because they are always in our mind. We can forget them for a while and then, all of a sudden, they raid us. Isn’t it so?” I nodded in agreement. A tear rolled down my face. He went further: “Every complicated situation in life has a reason. Of course, it is difficult for us to understand it at the time. But the universe has long fingers, and only later on we will be able to understand, and to be thankful.” He paused briefly and added: “Sadness cannot, not should be forgotten, as it needs to be overcome. This is only possible by understanding and transforming one’s way of being and living. These are the foundations of the factory of happiness.”

I cried a lot. The old man changed the rhythm of the drumbeat. The beats of my heart went along. A bit more composed, I admitted that after a few years, my parents re-arranged their lives the way they saw fit and became better persons. As for me, I matured earlier than I should have, but that helped me reach the point I am now. Yes, I was grateful for my background; it made me unique. The old man smiled.

Following the ritual, I recalled other moments of my life, like playing soccer with my friends on the street, the thrill of the first kiss, being accepted by a university. I also recalled difficult situations. The principal of my school accused me of something I did not do, a girlfriend dumped me for another student, I was fired from a job unexpectedly. The old man continued with his advice: “Don’t look at the past as a match of sadness vs. happiness. Look at it like lessons that have improved you. That way, there are no losses.”

I continued to sort through my memories. At a certain time, according to the old man’s instructions, all my recollections, including those that were sad at first, seemed to be good, because I came to understand the reason why they were in my life. A sense of bliss invaded me. I asked if that was happiness. I thought I knew the answer. I was surprised when he said: “No”. What did he mean? I told him I was disappointed, because I thought the factory of happiness was ready. The patience of the old man in guiding me in this construct seemed endless: “The building is ready. However, you have no idea of how to set the machines in operation. Bear in mind, you have to manufacture happiness.”

He insisted that tried to seek pleasant memories. I was able to recall many other situations that I had thought I had completely forgotten. I asked if that was a sign that the machines were in operation. The old man just shook his head. With his chin, he motioned for me to continue building the factory, while he continued to beat on the desert drum. Other memories came; however, none was enough to draw the attention of the factory’s engineer. Until I recalled a moment when I was still in high school and had very bad grades in math. I was about to fail. In order for me to pass, I needed a perfect score in my final test. I could not have a wrong answer. If I failed, I would lose my scholarship and the chance of continuing my education in an excellent school. I was afraid of wasting the chance I had. I told the old man that for three weeks I forgot my life to dive deeply in the study of math. Those were days and nights when the hope to meet my goal moved me. I recalled the tension I felt before receiving the result, and the unmeasurable joy I felt when I knew I had passed. At this point, the old man stopped the drumbeating and said: “This is joy! You delivered it. You place your heart ahead of everything. Joy was not external, but it stemmed from within you. The machines of the factory have started to operate. Go on!” He stated and intensified the drumbeating.

Then the recollections changed. I recalled moments in life in which I had given myself wholeheartedly. And the joy I had felt at each one of those moments. I spoke of Saturday nights when, rather than being with my friends, I went to prepare meals for the homeless with church people; of vacations when I joined a group of volunteer doctors to help the population of a country in Africa assailed with all sorts of miserable conditions, rather than went touring around Europe. I stressed the joy I felt with every look of gratitude or hug I received from these people. I cried once again, but now I shed tears of joy, compassion and love.

At that moment, I realized something very important. A detail, in fact, but which changed the whole picture. I confessed to the old man that what had prompted me to do charity was not the love I had, but in fact the love I did not have, the huge void that dwelt in me. He smiled and raised his arms: “Perfect!” he shouted, and immediately explained: “Joy must be set in motion by love. Not by the love you have, but by the love you seek. Not in others, but through others in yourself. Hence, you put the other in your heart. The love you have is the love you offer, not the love you receive. You do not offer love because people need to receive it, you do it because you need to do it. Only then you can feel love pulsates in yourself and be happy. You do charity work because you need to foster love in yourself. You realize how small you are and become humble.”

I asked if that was not a self-centered attitude. He explained: “You would be selfish if you only wanted to receive love; if you wanted others to provide the love you do not want to manufacture.” 

He started to beat his drum again, now more softly, and said: “When you give love, whether as a gesture of affection like a kind word or a hug, whether by giving a material asset, you must do it to exercise the love you must feel in your heart. If I do it for the other, then you will feel superior, and love will be exhausted in the drains of vanity and pride. I love you because I love myself; I do the world good because it does me good. Therefore, I feel I am equal, of the same size, as the one who will receive the love I have to give. Hence, there is no room for future demands or debts from anyone to no one. There is only room for love.”

“There is only joy when there is love. There is only love when one fully gives themselves. This is the joy of the world!”

The desert drum stopped beating. My factory of happiness had just started to operate. There was silence and quietness. The old man went to fetch two more cups of tea. He sat on a pillow before me and placed the cups on a small coffee table between us. From my backpack I took a wad of money and handed it to the old man. He refused: “I did not do it for you, I did it for myself.” 

He offered me a smile I will remember until the day without end. It was as if his white teeth were stars of the desert sky. I was about to argue and tell him that wasn’t fair, because I was quite pleased with the factory. The old man made a gesture with his hand, for me not to insist: “Just remember that happiness is a virtue with a secret, it requires that you give yourself to it. In order to have it as a companion, we must be whole in whatever we do.” 

He looked deep in my eyes and said: “Go, now.” And added: “Never forget that love is the raw material of happiness. Both have the same origin; they emanate from the same source. This is essential for one to have a fully operational factory.”

Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.

Discussions — No response