It was dusk on the ninth day of the crossing. That had been a boring day, particularly when compared to the previous ones. The caravanner ordered camp to be set up a little before the usual time we interrupted the journey for the night. I decided to see the barber. It may seem strange, but yes, there was a barber in the caravan. One of the members of the crew brought along in his baggage a small sink and a mirror, and all the necessary paraphernalia, such as razors, scissors, oils and creams. For many years now I have grown a beard and have made a habit of having it trimmed once a week. Because I had not cared for my beard since a few days before our departure, and because of the harsh conditions of the desert, I felt I had neglected myself when I looked at myself in the mirror. The barber was a nice, talkative guy. Because he was a veteran of many crossings, he enhanced his trade with the many stories he would tell as he trimmed beards and gave haircuts. When I sat on the chair and said I had gotten a fright when I saw myself in the mirror and saw how abusive the desert had been with me, he corrected me by saying that the desert was strict, but each one decided on the care they were to take of themselves. He went on to tell a funny story that he claimed was true, that happened many crossings back of a man who freaked out looking at himself in the mirror: he swore the image he saw was not of himself.
I ascribed that fact to the carelessness of that man with himself, combined with some type of psychotic derangement worsened by the harsh conditions of the crossing. The barber shrugged and said the desert always changed the life of people who crossed it. He added he had seen many odd things during crossings and gave up on trying to understand them. Once the job was done, I paid the price he charged quite contented. Supper was ready. I went to eat and forgot the story the barber had told. My attention was drawn to a rich rug trader, whom I had noticed on previous days, and who was travelling with a retinue of employees, always available to fulfill his slightest whims. He had a luxurious tent, lined with fine silk rugs and pillows. From afar, he noticed I was observing the activities around him and motioned me to get closer. I waffled, and he sent one of his employees to invite me to his tent. When I went in, up close, it all seemed even more luxurious. Silver flatware, crystal glasses and a musician who played a soft music with a sting instrument I had never seen. It was impossible not to be impressed. He told me to make myself comfortable and help myself to whatever I wanted. He soon told me about his business and told me about the palace where he lived, in Marrakesh. Next, one of his employees came with all the outfits to trim the trader’s beard. The trader said we should continue our conversation while he had his beard done. The conversation ran smoothly until I asked if the caravanner had the habit of going to that tent. He frowned. The tone of his voice visibly changed when he said the caravanner had never set foot there. His mood became even worse when, after the beard was trimmed almost to the skin by a sharp razor and his face was bathed in oil, I complimented him on the result. I suggested he could ascertain that by looking in a mirror. In a rude way, quite differently from the affable host he had been so far, the trader said he never looked in the mirror while crossing the desert. Next, he said it was time for him to retire to bed. Without understanding his sudden change of mood, I was escorted out by one of the employees.
Astonished, I was walking away processing what had happened when I saw the caravanner tending to his hawk after the evening training. I approached him and asked some questions about the bird, less out of curiosity and more because I needed to have someone to talk to. It did not take long for me to tell him about what had happened in the tent a little while ago. The caravanner listened to me patiently and, at the end, did not make any comment. I asked him why he had never been to the trader’s tent. His response was simple: “I have never been invited.” Even though that had caught me by surprise, I had no doubt the caravanner was being sincere. He arched his lips in a discreet smile. There was compassion and no resentment. The caravanner excused himself to go to dinner, because soon the food would be taken away. Alone, I sat on the sand and tried to make sense of the strange facts while watching the early stars appear in the sky.
Then, the beautiful woman with lapis-lazuli eyes came to sit next to me. She offered me a handful of nuts. We did not utter a word for a little while, until I decided to tell her what had happened in the tent of the rich trader and the subsequent conversation I had with the caravanner. I could not be more surprised when she confided: “They are brothers.” My expression could not hide how astonishing that information had been to me; hence, she decided to tell me more: “They became orphans at an early age. They grew up taking care one of the other. They started in the rug trade business still in their teen years, when an old lady who was moving away gave them all the rugs she had, because she could not take them. They sold them all. With the money they earned, they started to run around town looking for used rugs to resell. At some point, they heard about the rug weavers of the oasis who, despite the excellent quality of their products, had difficulties in trade because of the crossing of the desert. With the resolve typical of the youth, they started to travel, to trade with these wonderful weavers. At that time, people did not dare to endure such a journey. As their wealth increased, so did their travels, and their business consolidated. But the caravanner started to become more excited with the mysteries of the desert than the profits of the trade. Little by little, without realizing it, the crossing became not only a part of their trade but an art in itself. Notwithstanding, it all seemed to go well until one day, during one of the crossings, upon finishing grooming the beard of the caravanner – at that time he was still a rug trader – the barber placed him before a mirror, so that he could check the result. It is said he did not recognize the image the mirror reflected.”
“That was the turning point in the life of the caravanner. He gave up the rug business, leaving all to his brother. With the money he had amassed, he decided to set up a caravan of his own. Of course, it wasn’t easy in the beginning, but his willingness to follow his dream and perfect his gift gave him the strength to overcome the hurdles and carry on.” I asked if the trader’s dream was also to become a caravanner, like his brother. The woman explained: “Probably not. Each one is unique, and in this resides the beauty of being. However, there are two basic things the trader must understand. One is that the fact that the caravanner giving up working in the rug trade business does not demean it, nor it is a criticism of his brother, who carries on the trade. Each one with their gift and dream. The second is the money issue, which seems quite obvious to me. Money is a useful, welcome tool, but to cross the desert only to make and amass a fortune as a form of power and domination, pride and vanity, at some point will inevitably cause a void, impossible to be filled with coins.”
“One day, you end up not recognizing your own face in the mirror, because you have become a stranger to yourself. Some decide to face this personal battle; others prefer to run away.” She opened her arms as if being sorry and added: “We can run away from a place, never from the truth.”
How could he not have recognized his own face? I interrupted her and asked that she went into more detail. The woman obliged: “To look into the mirror and see the nose, the cheeks, the ears, everyone can do it. However, looking into the mirror to find your soul reflected, very few people can. Sometimes, when you are more sensitive and perceptive, you may find your soul abandoned, forgotten of itself. The outer glitter does not illuminate the darkness from the inner light being off.” After a pause, she continued: “It is a painful, but necessary encounter. Humility, sincerity, love and courage are required, in addition to other virtues for the indispensable rescue.” She gazed at me deeply and observed: “At some point in their existence, everyone needs to see their soul before the mirror. Then, they must bring their soul back to life. To refuse this quest is to relinquish the essence of life. No one can do that for anyone. To find one’s own soul is the major art; to free it from the jails of existence, the great work.”
I said that was a beautiful story, with enough material for reflection. However, I did not understand the fact that the brothers had quarreled: “They did not quarrel. Only the trader refuses to have a relationship with the caravanner, but the opposite is not true.” I said that now I understood even less. She did not give up on trying to explain: “This is because they are alike.” I shook my head, as if saying that didn’t make sense. The beautiful woman educated me: “We deny the beauty of what we do not accept. We escape from the truth when it bothers us. To be next to someone, even without saying a word, shows us an entire life that could have been, but was not, and this makes us sad. So, we take refuge in the sense of safety and power from the illusions with which the shadows’ trading post, located at the edge of life, seduces the ego.” She shrugged and said: “Not everyone is ready to start crossing their own inner desert to reach the oasis of the soul.”
I interrupted her once again to say that there was something that did not make sense. If the lifestyle the caravanner chose was so bothersome for the trader, why he stubbornly engaged himself in his brother’s caravan? Of course, he could have joined another caravan. The woman asked me in return: “Why do we fight so much with people we love? Why do we insist in looking for people who pose serious hurdles in our existence? Have you ever thought of that?” She paused waiting for me to reply. As I remained silent, she continued: “For the simple fact that we admire these people, even if subconsciously. We know that, deep down, these are the people who can teach and strengthen us. They have a light in them that is appealing to us and points the hurdles to overcome. In them the almost inaudible voice of our soul echoes, relentlessly showing a way out for the ego, disoriented and fragmented by various pains. It is the chance of escaping from a dark place despite the many glittering ornaments hanged around the time to distract us. Because clarity will rip off the mask of who is hidden in darkness, we complain, belittle, curse.”
“However, there is nothing more revealing of who we are than our suffering.”
I cut her off once more to ask if suffering is essential to evolution. Again, she shook her head and explained: “Of course not. Suffering is not necessary, on the contrary. This is what the desert teaches us. We suffer only when we move in a direction opposite to the light.” She looked me in the eyes and seemed to read my thoughts: “Yes, as ludicrous as it may seem, we suffer only because of our choices. The desert is just the desert. The direction to where one goes and the way one steps on the sand define the dunes and the hardships of the crossing.”
“However, it is at this point that the sufferings are important. They make up the map for the rescue, the trail of transformation. These are the footprints of mastery that tell the story of all of us. They narrate the search for life, light, soul, for oneself.”
“Sufferings have their value in showing what we are not, which is the first step to understand who we can be. One should dissect suffering starting from the circumstance that has caused it until understanding its pointlessness. In the origin of suffering lies its resolution. In suffering one finds the required transformation, the origin of virtues, the portal to the Path. In it hides the key of liberation, the prescription for the cure. All within reach of any individual in precise measure of the improvement of their personal choices. However, understanding is required. In turn, for understanding, love is required so that, instead of guilt and stagnation, there is joy in discovery and excitement to continue on the journey.”
We remained silent for a while until the beautiful woman excused herself and left. She said she had things to do. She added that I needed quietness and solitude. Little by little, those ideas found their right place within me. I understood that the rich trader refused to look at himself in the mirror not to run the risk of finding his own soul abandoned, as a beggar of life. Because he was not willing to change, he suffered. Paradoxically, running away from suffering only increased his pain, making the wheel of conflicts spin and granting powers to personal shadows. The mood swings I witnessed in his tent happened whenever something reminded him of what he was not. Irritation and severity are typical symptoms of people who must hide their fragility by being obsessed with pride and vanity. On the other hand, the caravanner was the one who conveyed the image of possible, simple choices, which are necessary but which one is not always willing to face. Denying his brother was the subconscious reaction of ignoring his own soul, his gift and dreams. Refusing the mirror is relinquishing the truth. It is denying the magic made by the crossing of the desert. Or of life. Herein resides the power of transformation and the power of evolution.
At that moment, I had a distinct feeling the woman with lapis-lazuli eyes was looking at me. But it was only two blue stars sparkling in the desert sky.
Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.