The waters of the Strait of Gibraltar are usually troubled. On this particular day, the sky was dark, announcing that the storm would arrive soon. The strong wind was shaking the boat that was making the crossing from Tarifa, in Spain, to Tangiers, in Morocco. Some people were seasick; others were frightened by the danger. The noise of the waves, crashing against the hull of the boat from all sides, was deafening. The only voices I could hear were the shouts of a group of men playing dice. They spoke in an unknown language, perhaps an African dialect. Because of their facial expressions, always taciturn, it was impossible for me to know who was winning or losing each round. A little away from everyone, a man caught my attention. About fifty years old, with a shaved head and a robust complexion, he had remained impassive since before the boat had set sail. His skin was dark, with wrinkles typical of age and excess sun; his full moustache was silver. Sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, he kept his eyes closed and his breathing calm, as if nothing around him had the strength to steal his tranquillity. However, something else intrigued me about that individual. I had the distinct feeling that I knew him, I just did not remember where.
The boat docked in a cargo port, in the middle of nowhere, about half an hour from Tangiers. The land transfer, made with buses in precarious conditions, was included in the price of the maritime ticket. However, there were too few buses for so many passengers. Soon there was an enormous confusion to board the buses. As the capacity reached the limit, they left. It was not difficult to realize that there would not be room for everyone. On the last bus they gave preference to children and old people. As I had imagined, I couldn’t make it. They guaranteed that the buses would return to pick up the remaining passengers. Besides a large area in which they stored dozens of containers, a little further away there were two terrible looking taverns. Even so, it seemed better to wait there for the journey to continue.
Inside, the best of the taverns was worse than it looked. Not only in the physical aspect, although it was dirty and several chairs were broken, the energy was unhealthy. I felt a huge unease the instant I entered. In defence, I concentrated my thoughts for situations of light and protection. This will always be the best shield. Although attentive, I strove to remain serene. I searched for a balance between firmness and delicacy. At the back of the establishment, some women were insinuating themselves; next to them, men sitting at a table pretended to be distracted by a pack of cards. Clearly, their attention was focused on the visitors.
In the opposite corner, next to a table, I saw an unoccupied chair. At the table sat the stout man I suspected I knew. He had his back to me when I approached. Bent over, he was fiddling with one of his two bags. I asked if I could sit down and share the table with him. The man turned around and I could see in his eyes the calmness of his soul. A calm that was disturbing because it seemed strange to me in such a rude man. He gave his consent with a nod of his head. More frightening was when he turned again and stooped to continue sharpening a dagger. Then he stowed the whetstone in one of the pouches and tucked the dagger into the waistband of his trousers. I knew about the desert men’s tradition of wearing a piece of steel around their bodies to absorb harmful vibrations. However, in that place, physical threats seemed more dangerous than astral traps.
I then spoke of the feeling I had of knowing him. However, I admitted that this had occurred to me other times and, in most cases, had been nothing more than meaningless impressions. Then he surprised me: “We were together on a journey through the desert some years ago. I remember that you were on your way to meet the wise dervish who lived in one of the oases. He paused for a moment and then said, “I was one of those in charge of security for the caravan. We didn’t get to talk in those days, but we shared some experiences. My name is Zayn.”
Yes, now I remembered. He was one of the caravan’s most trusted men. Among several passages that occurred, I remembered one in which Zayn, at lightning speed, drew his dagger and placed it in the throat of another foreman because the latter had provoked him with a joke. Zayn said, “I almost killed that man. It would have been a huge foolishness. All because of a mere offence; all because of pride and vanity. I appreciate the caravanner’s interference in that episode.” In his voice there was no pride or shame, but the serenity of those who are at peace with the past. He paused again and added: “That night a beautiful woman with blue eyes appeared. We talked for a long time. She made me understand that my defeat was not the hurt I received but it happened when I lost the best in me and let hate take over my mind and heart. When this happens, we lose control of our own life and hand it over to the wolves. Wolves, I found it strange. He explained to me, “It is how some of us in the desert refer to the spirits who instigate our shadows in order to manipulate us. They feed on our lack of emotional control. Because it is difficult to notice, it becomes a cruel form of domination. Many individuals believe themselves to be brave, but are nothing more than fragile puppets”. Without taking his eyes away from mine, he confessed: “I have allowed myself that role several times. However, that night I decided never to lose myself again”.
The sweet memory of the beautiful woman with eyes the colour of lapis lazuli and the caravan driver, loyal guardians of the caravan through the desert, came back to me. They had been days of extreme learning and efficient transformation. Not just for me, apparently.
The conversation was good. I said I would get a beer at the counter; I wanted to know if I could bring him a glass. He thanked me and accepted. When I returned, I said that despite his Arab appearance, I could tell he was not a Muslim like most of the people in charge of the caravan. I had spoken because of the precepts that advise against the consumption of alcohol. The man clarified: “That night, the blue-eyed woman left me as a gift a book of poetry by Rumi, the Sufi poet”. I asked if Sufis were a branch of Hinduism. Zayn explained, “Sufis follow all religions and no religion. We search for the truth of life. It can be found in the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the Tao or the Vedas. For the truth is only one and it is everywhere. Even in this tavern. You just have to know how to look”.
In that tavern? I thought that was a little exaggerated, but I did not want to stir things up. I asked him if he was a follower of Sufism. Zayn surprised me: “I try, but it’s very hard. I still can’t do it”. I wanted to know why, and he explained: “The Sufi’s commitment is to his own conscience, because it is the place where faith germinates and we meet God. However, although faith is important, it is of no use if I do not manifest myself in love in each gesture, through any of its virtues. Only in this way will I be able to intensify the light that brightens my steps”. He took a long sip of beer and confessed: “It so happens that I am still very poor in love”.
I was about to ask how he did it when he needed doses of love he didn’t have. After all, it’s not often that we meet a person who declares himself poor in love, while at the same time recognizing the importance of love in life. I had seen people complaining that they lacked money, health, peace and even love, but lamenting how little love others had it for them. Admitting that they had little love within themselves to share with the world was perhaps the first time. More so, they were words that did not come from an agonised or sad man, but from a soul that seemed at peace with itself.
I was about to tell him that perhaps there was some incoherence in his words, when we were interrupted by one of the ill-faced men in the tavern. I tensed up; I noticed that, although his gaze was sharp, Zayn’s features remained calm, unchanged. The fellow inquired if we were interested in acquiring some jewellery. Without time for an answer, the man opened a velvet case with several rings, bracelets, laces and watches. Although they glittered like gold, none of it seemed real to me. With an aggressive posture, he took the objects and brought them provocatively close to our faces, with the clear intention of frightening us.
I noticed that Zayn didn’t look away from the man’s eyes. It was a firm look. Not as a challenge, but as an act of courage. Defiance reflects the pride of showing oneself greater than the other; courage only warns that fear was left behind us and there will be no submission. As if to say, neither better nor worse, I will just be myself; I am here in my entirety. Those who have lived on the streets or faced battles know that it is easier to face a broken and insecure gang than a single man who is whole. Whole in himself, conscious of the unbreakable strength of his soul.
In that instant I realised the size of that power in Zayn. The man who was trying to sell us the jewels also understood it. So much so that he didn’t worry about me. From experience, he knew that Zayn was the opponent to be defeated. As we remained undeterred, despite his enormous insistence, the man pretended that he had given up. When he started to collect the jewellery on the table, which he said was jewellery, he shouted that a gold cord studded with rubies, the most valuable piece he had, was missing.
The fellow made a scandal as part of the trap. He declared himself stolen by us, since everyone in the tavern had seen it when he put the jewels on the table. I made mention of arguing the absurdity of the accusation, however I was persuaded to keep quiet with a simple gesture made by Zayn’s hand. In fact, even the best word at that moment would be useless. However, there was another message in that gesture: Zayn might not be in control of the situation, but he remained master of himself.
Unsatisfied with Zayn’s impassive posture, the guy brought his face close to his, to the point where their noses almost touched. I thought I would see a repeat of the scene in which the former caravan foreman, a sturdy, agile man used to fighting, would draw the dagger he wore in the waistband of his trousers and, if not stab him, at least put it in the impostor’s neck. I confess that I thought it would be a lesser evil, a legitimate defence in the face of the abuse and the real threat imposed by that malicious individual. However, there were his accomplices. Perhaps they would attack; perhaps, they would retreat in the face of the lethal disposition Zayn would come to represent. If he repeated the gesture made in the desert, the consequences would be unpredictable. If he showed fear, too.
It was only a few seconds. But it was a time that passed very slowly. Cowardice is dangerous; so is courage, when it is uncoupled from love. Cowardice, when it overflows into aggressiveness, causes tragedies. Every evildoer is a coward; when he becomes aggressive, it means that the fear was so great that it did not fit inside him. What frightens fear the most is to come across courage on the other side.
The buses that had taken the first group of people returned and parked in front of the tavern. A police car accompanied them because it was a dangerous region. People hesitated whether to go to the boarding or to watch the outcome of the conflict. The owner of the bar shouted out the guy’s name and warned him that he did not want any trouble with the police. The man walked away, not without first threatening us if he encountered us again. Zayn was impassive, as if nothing had taken him off his mental and emotional track. Without taking his eyes off the guy, he braided his shoulder bags, one on each side. Before leaving, he said to the evildoer: “Thank you!”
Contrary to what one might believe, it was not even remotely a provocation. There was sincerity and kindness in the thanks. An undeniable and charming gratitude.
We sat side by side on the bus. Zayn stood by the window. We were waiting for the bus to leave when another man, standing outside, approached us and said, with the obvious intention of only offending, that we were thieves. That if it were up to him, he would have searched us and beat us up. Zayn didn’t reply in a word. He just gave him the same look of compassion and courage he had offered that other man in the bar. The man shouted for everyone to hear the accusation until the bus started moving. Zayn, in an equally charming tone, murmured to this man, “Thank you!”
A few minutes into the journey, we still remained silent. Zayn was distracted by the landscape; I thought about how a simple attitude, accompanied by a single word, had had a greater force than a long speech.
However, despite understanding the strength born in Zayn’s dignity – dignity for staying loyal to his values and virtues, even in the face of the evil that sometimes tempted him, sometimes threatened him -, I wanted to know Zayn’s reason for thanking those men who had mistreated him. He arched his lips in a slight smile and said with clear self-esteem: “I won”. He then added, “In other times, I would have had no qualms about pulling out the dagger and leaning it against his neck. Maybe tear his flesh if the situation escalated. Although he was aggressive and posed a threat, he was unarmed. I did not allow the evil that was in him to infect me. So did the other one who cussed me out just now. I could return the insults or even get off the bus to give him a good beating. I would have no difficulty in doing that. However, I did not allow their darkness to extinguish my light.”
“I did not defeat them. I defeated myself.”
“Life put them in front of me to test me. To know if I would listen to my shadows and open the doors of the temple for the wolves to enter,” at which point he pointed to his own heart to indicate which temple he was referring to, and continued, “Or would I stand firm to the principles of light, expanding the power of the sacred that dwells within me.”
“Without those men it would not be possible for me to intensify that light. For so much they have allowed me, I owe them my sincere thank you.”
I said I noticed the honesty in his words. I could also see the enormous love that Zayn emanated. I said he was wrong to believe himself poor in love. The man of the desert, calloused and robust, challenged me sweetly, “No, Yoskhaz. It would be an illusion to imagine myself different from what I am. That would only hinder my journey”.
“Love manifests itself in gestures that spring naturally from the heart, a light and spontaneous feeling. When we act out of love we don’t need to reason beforehand, because we are enveloped by this ravishing force. Today, contrary to what you believe, I did not act with this feeling, because love did not appear at the very beginning. I felt anger, I was irritated. However, I already recognise what I no longer want in myself. I had to master hatred; my hatred. I did not do it through the heart, because I lacked love. If I had love at that instant, I would have felt compassion for that person. I acted through the mind, forcing in my attitudes the ideas that should take root in my being, in the form of virtues, for they do me good, for they enlighten me. Only then, after acting in accordance with this consciousness, did love appear. It happens like that, a little more each day. Love is born in the mind, as a choice, to then become a seed and blossom in the heart.
The bus arrived at its destination. We said goodbye, hoping that we would meet again on one of the many crossings that we would still make through the desert. I wandered through the old streets of Tangier until nightfall. I had a lot on my mind. That day had offered me valuable lessons through a master who did not see himself as such. For this reason, perhaps, he was one of the best.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic