The thirty-eighth day of the crossing – the mutiny

As any devoted apprentice, I was already waiting for the caravanner, when he arrived with his hawk for the morning training. It was quite early, camp was still waking up. Having been invited to learn the art of falconry was very exciting to me. However, I had to honor that invitation; for two days now under my command, the hawk had returned with no prey. This was worrisome to me. I put on the thick leather glove, a gift from the caravanner, and he handed me the bird. I felt the strength of its talons on my left arm. I wondered how difficult it would be for a small prey to escape from that predator.  Just like the caravanner had taught me and demonstrated, I went close to the hawk to mentally transmit instructions for that day’s hunt. Without saying a word, I told it to see beyond sight, so that it could find the prey hidden beyond the appearances of the desert. I took off the cap that covered the bird’s head; it kept its gaze fixed ahead. Next, I propelled it with my arm. The hawk went soaring into the sky. It glided in circles for long minutes; moments of much anxiety for me and total composure for the caravanner. When it returned to my arm, it hadn’t brought any prey. Once again. I waited for the caravanner to make a comment, but he didn’t say a word about it. He just said we should return to camp to pack our gear; the caravan had to leave for another day of crossing. I said I was upset because the hawk had yet to succeed in catching prey under my command. The caravanner said: “You are concerned with the glory of the hunter and, therefore, your glory. This is the reason why the hawk hasn’t found any prey.” He paused before explaining in an enigmatic way, which was typical of him: “Forget the prey, focus on the mechanism of the search. Then, the hunt will be unveiled. The trophy is not the prey, but the perfect flight.”

We were walking next to each other, already close to camp. I was commenting on not having seen the woman with lapis-lazuli eyes for the last couple of days when we noticed a big turmoil. Lead by Omar and Jamil, a small group formed by some insubordinate foremen was keeping the rest of the staff and the travelers at gunpoint. They threatened to kill summarily whoever disobeyed them. Omar and Jamil had distinct personalities. While Omar was silent and somber, Jamil was outspoken and popular. Omar pointed the rifle at us, when we approached. Jamil made a verbal threat. He said if there was a reaction, a tragedy would occur. He added they were unhappy with the arrangement of the caravanner regarding the division of the profit generated by the caravan. The caravanner, without showing any hint of nervousness or haste, passed me the hawk. Only then, he spoke. His voice was clear, soft, fearless: “All the conditions were presented before the caravan took off. I offered what I believe was fair. No one was forced to take it or to come. Those who did should honor the commitment they made or may quit working for the caravan. They may go back or continue on to the oasis, not as a member of the staff but as an ordinary traveler, or they can go wherever they want.” He made a pause and then continued: “No one has to do what they don’t agree to. But they cannot, through violence, force others to do things against their will or take their belongings.”

Jamil said that the foremen felt as if they were exploited or mistreated. That was the uprising of the oppressed, he shouted. The caravanner argued: “The conditions of the desert are very harsh; any mistake may thwart the crossing. It is up to me to maintain order and harmony within the caravan. We are three days away from the oasis. There we will find a court with magistrates who know the laws of the desert. Those who are unhappy may plead for reparation they believe they are entitled to. However, I warn you that, according to the laws of the desert, the caravanner has an absolute right over the caravan; the hardships of the desert demand a firm hand, or the crossing may not be completed. On the other hand, every caravanner is bound to take the caravan safely to its destination, at the expense of their own life. These are the laws of the desert. Everybody was warned of the caravan rules and regulations before our departure.” He looked at the eyes of each one of the rebels and hissed: “This is not an uprising. In fact, this is but coercion and ordinary robbery.”

The caravanner warned them that the desert’s court would be unforgiving, when we reached the oasis. However, they would grant them pardon if they gave up, on their own volition, the crime they were committing. The stern Omar, who had kept quiet, stepped forward and said it was too late for regrets. He added that they were not naive and would not go to the oasis, where they knew they would be sanctioned. They would divert the course and head to a Tuareg village, less than one day of march away. The leader of the village was waiting for the caravan. It was going to be there that everyone was going to be judged. The caravanner arched his lips in a discreet smile, as if already expecting such a vicious move from Omar, and said: “A judgement, in order to have the dignity of being so called, implies an impartial assessment of facts, ample possibility of defense and a decision untainted by interests astray to true justice. Or else, in this village, the loot will be split according to some devious rhetoric to justify profiting from the plunder.”

The caravanner did not react when he had his hands tied. Omar tried to mount the caravanner’s white horse. However, the apparently tame animal did not allow another rider. Closely watched by the ill-tempered Omar, the caravanner continued on foot, next to the horse and the foremen who were loyal to him. Jamil assured everyone in the caravan that, if they caused no problem, they would be released after the judgement in the village. He did not say a word about what would happen to their assets and belongings. The rebellious foremen were traveling with their guns pointing, in a threatening way, to the other travelers mounted on their camels. I made a point of marching next to the caravanner, even though Jamil said it wasn’t necessary. I insisted. They laughed but allowed it. I continued on foot, but my hands were not tied up. In their assessment, I posed no threat. The caravanner smiled with his eyes looking at me. His countenance did not display a trace of hatred, only composure and heed. We had been walking for a while when I told him how astonishing to me was his composure. The caravanner said: “I cannot control the storms of the world, but I have full control of them not to let them reach my heart.” He paused and added: “Furthermore, we are in a very dangerous moment that requires my full attention. I must have a clear mind to make timely and proper decisions, without the gloomy interferences of a heart drowned in hatred.”

Just like everybody else in the caravan, I was afraid. I could sense fear even in the mutinous, armed men. I asked the caravanner if he didn’t feel even a pinch of fear. He said with sincere humility: “The time for fear has passed. The moment is for courage, hope and faith.”

He was right. This is what virtues are for. Any learning only makes sense if applied to ordinary, everyday situations; knowledge requires exercise to turn into wisdom. We are conditioned to be afraid in face of hardships that come about. However, because it is a shadow, fear hides virtues, good ideas and prevents the best choices. Fear darkens the manifestation of light. Because of that, I tried hard to dominate my emotions, in the wake of the words of the caravanner. Little by little, I also settled down, started to reason better, and my perception became keener. This is when I realized I had not seen the beautiful woman with lapis-lazuli eyes. With my eyes, I swept over the caravan, but saw no hint of her. I asked the caravanner if he had seen her. He shook his head. For a fraction of a second, I thought I had seen her mounting her sturdy black stallion, Wind, watching the caravan at a distance, from the top of a dune. I flinched my eyes, but there was nothing to see. I thought I had seen a mirage typical of the desert.

We continued for a few more hours. Omar did not authorize the usual midday stop, even though Jamil wanted it. The sullen rebel insisted on hastening the pace until we reached the village. A brief discussion ensued; it seemed Omar’s wish to continue was going to prevail until the caravanner meddled in to say they should stop. He reasoned that there were older people traveling with the caravan, and also people who were not feeling so well. The stop would be opportune. Omar argued that for many days the caravan marched straight, without stopping. The caravanner, in a measured and soft tone, explained that this had not been an ordinary day. Tension diminishes physical resistance, he said. Once again, Omar refused to stop. The caravanner said he would not take another step. He sat on the sand. In the face of everyone’s amazement, an attitude of rebellion against the insurrection.

Omar pointed the rifle to the head of the caravanner. He threatened to kill him, if he didn’t stand up immediately. The caravanner only looked at him deep in the eyes. He did not say a word or stand up. At this point, seized by an odd sense of calm that stemmed from a strong conviction rooted in the core of my soul, I also sat down. Next, the foremen loyal to the caravanner did the same, even under threats voiced with escalating tones. One by one, all the travelers sat on the sands of the desert. Only the mutineers remained standing before those who were rebelling against the initial insurrection.

Jamil threatened to kill everyone, if they remained adamant in disobeying. He was visibly out of control. No one manifested him or herself. Jamil was facing a deadlock. In order to show his authority, he would have to take action in a way that showed unequivocally his power. However, to assassinate the entire caravan in the middle of the desert would be such an extreme reaction that, in fact, it would show his weakness and inability in dealing with the situation. Jamil knew he would be demoralized before the Tuareg villagers, whose support they needed. Leadership is distinct from authority. Leadership stems from being a role model; authority comes by virtue of authority or brute–force. The caravanner was a leader because of the laws of the desert, and also for the admiration his attitudes inspired in all those in the caravan; Omar and Jamil were but authoritarian people who imposed themselves because of the fear they created. However, violence, if exacerbated, is always a sign of lost control, fear and ignorance. Everyone has a code of behavior according to their personal ethics, with which they draw a limit to evil. With the Tuaregs it was no different; they would hardly condone a senseless extermination of ordinary, defenseless people. The desert was a sacred ground for this people. However, the risk of an act of folly was huge, and we knew it. Some, however, saw things further; they knew they were at the edge of tragedy and redemption.

There was absolute silence, both abysmal and celestial; of graveyard and life in bloom. An instant that seemed to last an eternity. The ensuing actions would define the shadows or light of that day.

This was when Kalil, the good tea man, a wise person with whom I had learned a lot about the soul of the world, and the value of simplicity and humility, stood up, said he was going to make an infusion with some herbs and asked who would care for some tea. In face of the tension and of the unexpected, everybody laughed. Everybody but Jamil and, particularly, Omar. He grabbed the tea man by the arm, put the gun against his head and threatened to kill him if everyone did not stand up immediately and resume the march. He continued the threat, saying he would kill one at a time until he was obeyed. No one stood up except the caravanner. Not to obey Omar’s order, but to advise: “Cutting the head is the more effective way to kill an animal. Kill me and you will have the entire body of the caravan.”

Omar was astonished. He had not expected such reactions. In his mind, the script of that day was to tell quite a different story, a narrative in which horror would force submission. Everything seemed out of control. More out of instinct that premeditation, Omar pushed the tea man to the ground, pointed the gun to the caravanner and told him to get closer. He was monosyllabic and challenging in his response: “No.” He would not do anything to make the work of the executioner easier; that was boldness, courage and faith, certainly not a suicide.

One shot.

The noise made me close my eyes. I heard some shouts, out of fright and dread. When I opened my eyes, I was baffled by the look of surprise on Omar’s countenance. I turned to where his scared gaze was looking. Then I understood. The shot had not been fired by Omar’s gun, nor by anyone’s in the caravan. That had been a shot into the air, fired by the leader of the Tuareg at the top of a dune not too far. Escorted by his band, he approached us. 

As unexpected things kept happening on that day, riding her sturdy black stallion horse with great dignity among the band, there she was, the beautiful woman of lapis-lazuli eyes. Omar and Jamil were servile before Ali, the Tuareg leader. Without delay, Jamil gave his account of the facts. He said that the caravanner was a merciless, unfair man. He was also insensitive and extorted everyone in the caravan by charging abusive fees for the crossing. As if it weren’t enough, he also extorted the foremen by paying them a petty salary. Ali was a man of few words, but the situation seemed inspiring. So, he said: “This is what Omar told me when, months ago, he came to me asking me to intercept the caravan. However, this is not what I see, nor is it what this woman had told me” and pointed to the blue-eyed woman. The Tuareg leader continued: “Omar did not say that it was this caravanner he was talking about.” With his chin, he pointed to the composed man who was standing up, with his hands tied. He went on: “I know him. This caravanner is a man of law. He complies with the laws of the desert. Laws that the Tuareg people is also subjected to, just like any living being who inhabits or journeys on these sands since time immemorial.”

“We are wild because we do not submit to anyone but the laws of the desert. The laws allow for justice, never theft. We dwell in the desert since life has existed in the world. We charge a toll from those who cross our sacred domains. But we are not thieves. We are strict with those who believe they do not need authorization or respect to cross the desert. We also dispense justice according to the laws and our conscience. However, we are sweet to those who deserve the honey of life.” He looked at the caravanner and asked if the narrative told by Jamil and Omar was true. The caravanner was monosyllabic in his response: “No.” Unexpectedly, he added: “However, to every fact there are, at least, two versions.” On purpose, he made a pause and then continued: “In addition to the truth.” With a shrug, he finished: “Be my guest to ascertain.”

The Tuareg leader smiled in face of such boldness that verged on daring. I had learned during that crossing that truth always protects; the soul of the world loves the truth. Ali dismounted from his camel, went to the caravanner, took out the dagger he carried on his tunic strap and cut the ropes that tied the caravanner’s hands. There was a significant exchange of glances between the two of them. He said that from that point on, he would escort the caravan all the way to the oasis. He added that we were in Tuareg territory and our safety was assured. Next, he asked what the caravanner was going to do with the rebels. The caravanner did not think twice: “They will stay here. They will be judged by your people according to the laws of the desert. May their sentence be educational, so that it is enveloped in justice; the desert does not wish or harbor revenge.”

Without further delay, the caravan resumed the crossing. On my camel, in the middle of the long line, I saw, way ahead of me, the woman with lapis-lazuli eyes riding next to the caravanner. During the march on that day there was a big hubbub. Everyone was talking about the events and the emotions they felt. Gradually, I let other people pass by me. I wanted to be at the end of the line, alone, to ponder my feelings and articulate the ideas about all that I had experienced. Every day, a master is waiting for us with a new lesson. Little by little, that day’s master made itself visible, and the lesson became understandable.

I considered a number of hypotheses and made many reflections. Maybe the caravanner had noticed an insurrection was going to occur even before it did. This would explain the vanishing of the blue-eyed woman, who had gone to the Tuaregs seeking their support and making them understand the facts of the situation. I also thought about the behavior of the caravanner; of the risk he had decided to take regarding the outcomes, on the verge between evil and good. I tried to make sense of how, even with the perspective of the worst happening, he remained with unshakable composure; as if nothing or no one could affect his soul. 

I thought for hours on end until my reasoning became clear. Risk is innate to life. Everything could have gone wrong; it would be a tragedy. On the other hand, the events unfolded in a favorable way. Because the caravanner moved in tandem with light, he would have the protection of the desert. This is a law. But, could anything had gone wrong on that day? No question. However, only in appearance. The manifestations of love, wisdom and justice of the desert are not always easy to understand. 

Nonetheless, how to remain firm and serene in face of an undesired outcome? The answer was absurdly simple: sadness is rooted in frustrations and disappointments. This only happens when we live seeking the rewards of existence. The caravanner did not seek rewards; he only strived to do the right thing. That was all. That made him whole; free, dignified and in peace. From this stemmed all love and happiness. So, there is nothing lacking.

But, what is the right thing to do? The right thing to do is to live your best on each day, with lightness and joy, according to your conscience, on the rails of virtues that are already illuminated. Conscience is the perception each one has of himself and of the desert. Hence, each one, at their own pace, make their crossing towards light; this is how one reaches the oasis. In there, the truth. This is the power, all the power.    

In the early evening, the caravan stopped to set up camp for the night. I saw when the caravanner passed with his hawk for the evening training. I went after him. As if he was expecting me, the passed me the bird. Once it was perched on the thick leather glove I wore on my left hand, I approached and mentally told the bird that it had to see beyond the sight to find all that was hidden to the eyes. But not only that. Regardless of it capturing a prey, I suggested the bird soar as high as its wings allowed and asked for a perfect flight, one that is light for the sheer pleasure of feeling the desert wind propelling and keeping its body in the air.

I took the cap off its head. The hawk turned to me for a fraction of a second, as if it had understood each word I had not uttered. With a motion of my arm, the bird soared to the sky. It glided around the blue of the sky for a good while, as if nothing else mattered other than flying for the sheer need of the flight. To fly is necessary; to live is not. At that moment, it was impossible not to recall the famous poem of the alchemist from Lisbon. 

Unexpectedly, the hawk collected its wings for a deep dive to the ground. Then, it brought in its strong talons a small rodent. The caravanner looked at me and arched his lips in a discreet smile. I silently nodded my head, thanking him for that invaluable lesson.

I fell asleep on the sand, at a distance from camp, looking at the stars and waiting for the beautiful woman of lapis-lazuli eyes. There was so much to talk about. She didn’t come.

Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.

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