Our hopes were high. The caravan arrived at the oasis around noon, after 40 days of journey. This was the largest oasis of the desert, and it was beautiful. It was different than all I could have imagined. It was a small, thriving and unlikely city, lost in a sea of endless sand. There was a huge fresh-water lake in the center, surrounded by date palms, and apricot and peach trees. Many drinking-water wells were placed around the village, and of free access to anyone. Because the ground was fertile, on account of the water, a sustainable agriculture that included grains and vegetables, such as chickpeas and carrots supplied the locals. A constant and steady breeze and the extended shaded areas, made possible by the many trees, relieved the heat, making it quite pleasant. There was undergrowth covering a large portion of the oasis, giving it a nice green hue that contrasted with the strong blue of the sky and the typical yellow of the sand. The homes had huge windows to take advantage of the ventilation, and in almost all of them some type of shop or store operated. I could easily identify, on my first tour around the village, small grocery stores, rug-weaving and tailor shops, knife shops and even a school. People were agreeable and quiet; they lived in harmony with the desert. Because there weren’t lodgings for everyone, the caravan set up camp on the outskirts of the oasis, a pleasant site with wells and many trees around it. Without delay, I tried to locate the dervish whom I intended to meet and gain from his well-known wisdom. However, much to my surprise, the locals were vague in their directions. When I asked where he was, they would say “everywhere; nowhere.”
The precise location of the wise man’s home was also an enigma. “Where the wind destroys the old forms” and “Where the sun closes with the night” were the most common answers I was given. In my search for the dervish, I entered a warehouse looking for information. It was a place where all sorts of things were sold, most of them used stuff, traded by caravan travelers who had in that oasis an important trading post on their commercial routes. The walls were covered with huge shelves that displayed ordinary and useful objects, such as sunglasses, but also the weirdest that imagination could devise; I could not believe it when I saw a wetsuit displayed in a window. A small group of pilgrims who, like me, had arrived with the caravan were seated around the only table at the place. A long, community table. At the warehouse they also served tea. I was asked to join them. The comments at the table were about how difficult it was to locate the dervish. They were discouraged and were convinced the dervish did not exist; it was but a legend well kept alive by residents of the oasis, in order to foster local tourism.
Some of them were more annoyed and claimed they had been deceived. They recalled the caravanner had warned them the caravan could not assure they would meet the dervish. He was accused of participating and profiting from what they considered a ruse. Others argued, rightfully, that the crossing was the great master. Each one had learned and transformed themselves according to their possibilities; they would all return to their cities with the transmutations they had been able to achieve. We should be happy with such personal achievements. Now, we had to apply them in our daily lives.
I only listened while drinking the flavorful tea served by the owner of the place. He was a man who matched the peculiar aspect of the warehouse. Just like everything else in that place, he was an atypical character. A man of advanced age, he wore a piece of cloth wound around his head in a Tuareg style. A patch covered one of the eyes, the other had a glass lens to aid his sight. Oblivious to comments, he seemed to not have listened to them, or not care about the accusations made by those at the table. Gradually, one by one, all the pilgrims left. While some went back to camp, others went to walk around and get acquainted with the oasis. I stayed there by myself. I asked for another cup of tea. I started to pay attention to that place. I noticed some shelves filled with used books. Those books were in a variety of languages. I am passionate about books, and began rummaging through the shelves, looking for interesting titles. I found many. One, especially, caught my attention, The Book of Sand, by Argentinean alchemist Jorge Luis Borges. I had read it in my teen years. I recalled that I had been deeply impressed by the book, particularly by one of its short stories, The Other. My book, however, got lost after many moves and some marriages. From the cover, I could see it was the same edition as mine. I took that worn-out book from the shelf and, when I began leafing through it, I was baffled. I found a dedication written by a former girlfriend of mine when she gave me that book as a Christmas gift many decades ago. An indescribable sensation gripped my gut at such an unlikely discovery of a book that had disappeared almost 40 years ago in the city of Rio de Janeiro in an odd warehouse in the middle of the desert. I had no doubt I would take that book as an unbelievable souvenir of that fantastic journey. I asked the owner how much it was. “One book”, he answered. I said I had not understood. The old man explained: “The cost of any book on the shelves is another book. Books are not priced in money. You get a book and leave another for those who will come after you. Hence, knowledge circulates. This is its single and true value.”
I told him: “I came with the caravan. That has been a hard journey since the beginning. In order to be accepted, I had to learn and start exercising detachment in a routine of simplicity from the very first day. I even had some books in my luggage. I know books are essentially important, but I had to dispose of them, because, although they are basic sources of knowledge, for this crossing they were expendable. I would not have time to read”, I explained. I opened my wallet and took out a bill that would allow me to buy some ten new copies in any good bookstore. Before doing that, I was careful enough to ask him not to be offended by my gesture. Humble, the old man said he understood my desire and my reasons, but, shrugging as one who regrets a situation he can’t help, he said once again, as if repeating the obvious: “A book costs a book. No more, no less.” I insisted, recounting the incredible journey of that copy that had once belonged to me. Without saying a word, he only looked at me with kindness and patience, as someone who is dealing with a stubborn child. Resigned, I put the money back in the wallet and the book back on the shelf.
All in that warehouse fascinated me, from the stubborn owner to unexpected items with a history of their own. I ordered some more tea while rummaging through other shelves. I found an old dagger with the blade smithed with Damascus steel and the handle made of ram’s horn. Other than books, all the rest could be bought with money. Nothing was expensive. I took the dagger for me. I went to sit at the table when my tea was ready. I asked the old man what his name was. “Hani”, he said. From the pocket of my pants I took out a small plain notebook with a pencil attached, an object I had the habit of carrying to make notes since my youth. Because I did not have a camera, I started to draw the warehouse from the perspective of where I was seated. I drew it all in detail, unhurriedly. At the center of the page was the book by Borges, which, from the shelf, insisted in looking at me. For some reason, I didn’t feel like leaving.
Long minutes passed. No one entered the warehouse, and we did not exchange words. At some point, I realized I had not asked Hani the question I had intended to ask when I entered the warehouse. More to make conversation rather than believing he could be of any help, I asked him if he knew the mysterious dervish. Hani’s response made me stop drawing: “Each time a little better”, he told me.
In disbelief, I wanted to know how I could find him. Hani’s response was an almost imperceptible smile. I couldn’t believe it. No, that grumpy and yet kind old man could not be the wise man everybody was looking for and no one could find. The pilgrims had spent a good portion of the afternoon seated next to him, saying he did not exist. That would be absurdly ironic. Hours before, at that very table, everyone was regretting the inexistence of the dervish while he listened to the comments in silence, behind the warehouse counter. I considered that maybe Hani was making fun of me, a humorless joke. On the other hand, I considered that he was the only clue available at that time. I begged him for help. Hani was enigmatic: “All those who were here got lost in the noise of their own words and in the alleys of discouragement. You only listened patiently and kept inner silence. This perseverance will lead you to the encounter.”
I said I had not understood. Hani said it was time to close the warehouse, and that I should go to his home at dusk. Still astounded with the experience, I said goodbye and promised I would meet him later on. I wandered around the oasis like a homeless animal; more than reaching somewhere, I wanted to hasten the clock and articulate my ideas. At dusk I went to a house next to the warehouse. Hani was waiting for me. That was a simple place. There was no furniture in the living room other than some huge and colorful pillows scattered all around. The walls were covered with paintings and pictures of different types and sizes. There were so many they covered the entire walls, as an inventory of the stories the old man had lived. One picture in particular caught my attention. That was an unbelievable photograph in which Hani was next to the Dalai Lama in front of the warehouse at the oasis. There was a dedication written by the Buddhist monk, that stated “At least once a year we should visit a place we don’t know.”
I joked with the old man by pointing at the photograph and saying: “This year I complied with Dalai Lama’s instruction”, meaning that I too was visiting the oasis. Hani furrowed his brow and warned me once again, in an enigmatic way: “Not yet.” Then, he asked me to make myself comfortable and wait a little. He went out for a moment and returned with a drum. One of the famous magic drums of the desert, I recognized. I understood that a ceremonial was going to take place. In one of the corners of the room, the old man beat the drum at a slow rhythm, which he gradually increased. For I don’t know how long, little by little, I let myself be enveloped by that rhythm. The next thing I knew, I was listening to the drum without Hani beating it. Stimulated by the rattling of two maracas he had in his hands, he twirled around incessantly in the middle of the room, as dervishes do when they want to reach an altered stage of consciousness. It is their method to get in contact with good spirits and bathe themselves in luminous vibrations to try to understand things beyond the veil of illusion. In fact, it also serves to connect the subconscious to the conscious, in order to be whole.
At some point, I realized I too was twirling, as if I were a dervish. I danced to exhaustion. Then, I sat on a pillow. The drum became silent. Hani was no longer in the room. I was by myself. Alone? No. I noticed a young man of around 20 years old seated at the opposite corner. He had long hair and wore round-rimmed prescription glasses. The young man looked at me, not very interested, perhaps because he did not see anything that could inspire him. However, I thought he looked like me when I was his age.
I asked if he studied medicine. He looked at me inquisitively and said yes. I asked him his name, just to make sure. His answer was the one I was expecting. Without anticipating the consequences, I warned him: “You will abandon medicine after a few years of practice. You will work with publicity and advertising. You will be happier doing that.” The young man smiled at me and, ironically, was assertive: “I don’t see myself working in a profession other than medicine. I have healing hands.” There was a hint of arrogance and irritation in his words. I smiled at myself for recognizing me. I could help him. “This is not your gift. You will find that out”, I said. He smiled and asked me: “How do we know we are not practicing what we are gifted for?” Without letting him lead me to where I did not want to go, I explained, composedly: “Sadness, impatience, irritation and bitterness assail us when we work just because we have to. These emotions are contrary to those set in motion by the joy of love.” The young man shook his head as if saying I did not know what I was talking about and challenged me: “A well-known psychic told me I have healing hands. What do I do with them? Cut them out and throw away?” In face of the sarcasm, I had no doubt I was talking with myself. I refused to be let off track: “There is no question you have healing hands. Physicians, nurses and psychologists must have healing hands. Bakers, bricklayers and writers too.” Before he replied, I added: “Think about that. Where there is love, there is healing.”
We remained silent for a while. We both had to be comfortable at that meeting. The young man told me: “My childhood and adolescence were hard, both financially and emotionally. From now on, I want a different life, I want the good things the world has to offer. I will be a well-known and respected doctor. I will have many patients; my fame will spread worldwide.” I remembered how those years had been difficult and distressing for me. I had everything, and yet I had nothing. I advised him: “These ideals do not necessarily reflect a good life. Every single day we come to crossroads on our path. On one road, there is shine; on the other, light. We have to make choices at all times. Always choose out of love, so that you don’t have to go back to that crossroad to take the other road.” He did not grasp the depth of my advice. I knew that. I also knew that further down, when he was ready, those words would be like a seed that would give origin to the process of transformation. There is the time of sowing; there is the season to reap. Those words would germinate in his mind, as if by magic, when the time was ripe. Then, they would be like flower and fruit for the rest of his life.
I told him in advance that he was going to be a good father, because he would understand the importance of responsibility and that would help him understand about love. He laughed and warned me: “I don’t want to have children. They are the source of concerns and troubles. They limit the freedom of parents. I have had too many problems with mine.” I nodded, as someone who, now, from a distance, could see himself embracing a mistake believing it was the right thing; I ignored his comment and continued: “You will have two daughters. Each one with her own personality and individuality. Both of them beautiful, like all of us. One loves the letters and will be a journalist. She will live in the city of Porto, Portugal, and will study to become a book editor, the path she will follow because of her gift. The other will have an inclination for numbers and a love for sciences. She will attend the Georgia Institute of Technology.” At that moment, I realized that in the heart of its campus, in a plaza called Harrison square, there are two sculptures depicting Rosa Parks, the civil liberties activist. One is of Parks at the age of 42 and the other at the age of 92. The young and the old talk to each other. This installation shows that freedom is rooted in ethical choices. In my heart, I was grateful for the synchronicity and the opportunity I had. I tried to appease his heart: “Differently from what you believe, despite the concerns and hardships, your daughters are priceless gifts life will give you. Learn with them about love and then experience love in the world. Enjoy each moment with happiness and faith. Life never deserts us; we are its children.”
I had much to tell that young man; I could avoid innumerable sufferings he would go through, occasions when he would hurt people, times when the rug would be pulled from under him. But his image started to fade before me, as if it was losing definition. Before disappearing entirely, he asked me: “How would I know this meeting even took place?” I replied at once: “You will not, until you reach today. You will wake up as if you have been to a distant reality.” Curious, he wanted to go further: “As in a dream?” I explained that this was exactly what was going on. He was dreaming of himself at a different stage of his life. An old man helping himself as a young man. He doubted it: “We can’t be in the past and in the future at the same time.” I explained once again: “Time is linear only at the surface. In depth, it is quantic; it allows different times to meet through vibrational leaps, like the electrons of an atom that can turn simultaneously in many ellipses.” He looked at me as if he were before a madman, and asked: “How do you know that?” I answered before he vanished completely: “You will know when you cross the desert.”
Visibly worried, he asked one last question: “So, everything will go wrong with me, right?” I consoled him: “Some things must go wrong so that they have a good outcome at the end.”
Our hands touched lightly to say goodbye. I closed my eyes for a number of minutes. I had to process that encounter. I could sense how much illumination I still needed; the enchanted journey is endless. When I finally opened my eyes, I saw the photograph of the Dalai Lama with Hani hanging on the wall. I understood the dedication. “At least once a year we should visit a place we don’t know.” The Buddhist monk was referring to a place inside oneself.
It didn’t take long for Hani to come back to the room. He brought a teapot and two cups. We sat on the floor and he poured us some tea. We drank in silence. I knew I did not have to tell him about my encounter. It was time to leave. I thanked the dervish for the fantastic opportunity I had of that encounter. The Sufi knowledge, which I knew only from texts and poems by Rumi, would be forever embedded in my core. I recalled that the crossing had begun because of a poem by the Persian philosopher. Hani only smiled, as if saying nothing happens just by chance. Before I left, I wanted to know a little more about the caravanner and the woman with lapis-lazuli eyes. They remained a mystery to me. Without evading the question, but without abandoning the riddles, the dervish explained: “They are both guardians. He guards you from the outside and protects you from the dangers of the world. She guards your core, pacifies your emotions and protects you from yourself. But for them to do their job, you must be aligned to the light, because they cannot do anything that is not in accordance with the cosmic laws.” He paused to conclude: “One does not cross the desert without the guardians.”
I loitered around the oasis, with my gaze split between the beauty of things and the stars of the sky. I noticed a commotion. It was the hubbub of another caravan that was about to set off. The oasis is on the route of all caravans. I realized that I had learned, transmuted and shared; it was time to move on, to complete the cycle. I did not think twice before procuring a camel and securing a spot in the new caravan. Because I had almost no belongings, in no time I could prepare my saddlebag and put it on my mount. We left. I was taken by a wonderful feeling of well-being and lightness, as if the plenitudes were right next to me. We marched for almost one hour into the night, when a huge full moon appeared from behind a dune, illuminating the caravan. I was not surprised to see, leading the group, the caravanner riding next to the beautiful woman with lapis-lazuli eyes.
They would still accompany me on many crossings.
Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.