Tariq al Haydar: The Cave

Abdullah Hamas, “Construction”, 1998. Source: f7hopesart.wordpress.com

Every year, on the 19th of Ramadan, Aisha would pack some clothes and food and head out to the mountains on the outskirts of the village of Dhuha. She would sit in one particular cave, think about her place in the universe, and attempt to purify her heart. Jealousy was never an emotion she struggled with. Even when Omar, whom she had hoped to marry, proposed to her neighbor, she felt no resentment. As painful as it was, she prayed for their happiness.

What attracted her to Omar was the kindness of his heart. Once, he noticed a bird near the trunk of a tree, and for some reason its mother would not come down from its perch. Maybe it had no way of helping its offspring. Perhaps it was afraid of people. In any case, Omar would come every day, feed it seeds, and help it drink from a saucer of water. He would cup the creature gently in his palms and extend it towards the mother bird, hoping it would fly. But it never did. When it died, he dug a small hole for it by the tree trunk and buried it. She spied him wiping his eyes, and prayed that he would father her children. When that hope evaporated, she accepted it and endured her disappointment.

This year, her father bought her a new pair of shoes. “Did you hear?” he asked as he handed them to her. “They say that they found traces of gold in the river.”

She smiled and thanked him for his gift, then headed out to the mountains. When she reached the cave, she set her basket and the little suitcase with wheels to the side and sat down cross-legged. She closed her eyes and tried to empty her head, then she allowed her fears to rise to the surface of her consciousness so she could examine them. The one fear she could not exterminate was that the God she loved, the Compassionate, the Merciful, the Gentle, was too good to be true. What if she were to emerge from among her spotted bones to find an angry, masculine god?

But an inner voice comforted her and told her that she did not really doubt God, but rather herself. Some part of her did not deem her worthy of happiness. So something, an entity she could not explain, unfolded her heart and asked her to look inside:

What do you see here? Do you not see compassion, mercy, and gentleness?

She held on to that thought for days, until all her fear evaporated, and she felt something enveloping her, filling her with tranquility. That tranquility overwhelmed her and gradually transformed into ecstasy, to the point that she had to lie down, trembling, until she wept so intensely that she screamed, but no sound came out of her. Then the ecstasy slowly turned back to tranquility, and she rested, rubbing her toes together.

When the 29th night of Ramadan came, she looked at the sky to see if the crescent would show, signaling the end of the month, and when it did, she gathered her belongings and made the trek back to the village, where her father greeted her with open arms.

“I bought you a new dress for Eid, beloved!” he smiled. It was red cotton with yellow stitching.

“Thank you, Father, but you didn’t have to buy me anything.” He was a fisherman, and there were barely enough fish in the river to sustain them.

He sat down on a wooden chair, cleared his throat and said, “My beloved must have new clothes for Eid!”

All the people of the village could talk about was the gold in the river. Prospectors had arrived, and people began to say that things would change.

Throughout the year, Aisha would sporadically visit the cave, and when she did, she would think about patience. A problem she had was that she never managed to live in the moment, or at least that’s what she suspected. She was always remembering some embarrassing incident from the past or thinking about how the future would unfold. So she tried to focus on patience. She imagined that patience was a ball she could squeeze in her hand. What did that trait mean? One could be patient about hardships or about anticipating a desire that had yet to manifest. In either case, she decided that the key was to endure absence with grace, so that’s what she spent her time contemplating.

One day, as she sat in the darkness meditating on patience, a light illuminated the cave. She was so shocked that she jumped up and ran all the way back to her father’s hut barefoot, scarring her feet. When her father saw her, he immediately embraced her. “What’s the matter, beloved?”

She told him what happened. She was sure that she had descended into madness, or that it was some demon. “I’m lost, Father!”

He wiped her hair. “Beloved, you are compassionate, merciful, and gentle. The Divine would never allow you to lose yourself.”

His words calmed her, and she found herself yearning to return to the cave, but her father would not allow it because of the scars on her feet. He applied ointments to them and wrapped them in cotton. “You can go back to the mountains when you’ve healed.”

The people of the village spoke of sweeping changes that would arrive because of the gold in the river. They would build restaurants and luxury hotels. Most of the village’s inhabitants rejoiced, because it meant new jobs for them. Better lives.

One day, her father entered the hut and threw himself on a wooden chair. “Sit down, beloved.”

She could tell that something terrible had happened. “What is it?”

“Sit down.”

She did. Without looking at her, he said, “Khalid told me that they have a whole plan. They’re building a new city…”

“And?”

He sighed. “The village is too small, so they’re going to blow up the mountains to make room for the hotels.”

Her mouth dropped open, and then she jumped up and ran in the direction of the cave. She knew her father would not follow her. He’d let her process this in her own way. But she would not process it. She would not accept it. When she reached the cave, she sat in the light and wept silently. Then a thought entered her mind: She would die here. If they were going to blow this place up, she would explode with it. As soon as that thought entered her mind, the cave went dark, and a sudden fear struck her heart, but then she felt a heat in her chest, and she understood what the Light was communicating to her:

Beloved, you are too precious to die over a pile of rocks.

She walked back to the hut with her shoulders hunched, looking at the ground, and when she entered, she felt the heat in her chest again, massaging her heart, so all she could do was collapse on her cot and weep uncontrollably. Like she never had before. Her scream filled the village, and people from all around gathered to see what was wrong with her.