The twenty-second day of the crossing – the eyes of the desert

There is nothing like the day after the storm for us to appreciate stillness. It was like that on the twenty-second day of the crossing. The hours passed with a delightful lull after a few days of extreme commotion. However, those who believe stillness necessarily means boredom or stagnation are deceived. I had woken up with the early rays of the sun. I packed my gear in my saddlebag rapidly, so I would have time to enjoy some habits that had turned into a morning ritual in the desert. I would make a brief, sincere prayer asking for light and protection, like the caravanner had taught me. Next, I would grab a cup of fresh coffee and move away from camp, to see, from afar, the caravanner train his hawk. It was the time the staff had to break camp, so that we would go for another day of journey towards the desert’s largest oasis, where I intended to meet and talk to a wise dervish “who knew many secrets between heaven and earth.” I was always trying to meet the beautiful woman with lapis-lazuli eyes, but she did not seem to be available to my eyes and had shown to have her own time to show up and to go away, as if vanishing into thin air. That crossing was making me have an altered perception of reality, or, at least, of what I thought was reality. In the desert, all our senses were superlative, because experienced to the extreme of emotions and ideas, as if to stretch them to their limit and then tear them apart, so that they could turn into others, in an ongoing process of fast transmutations.

That is how I was traveling on that day, engrossed in my reflections. Who aligned his camel to mine was a man my age whom, from his clothes, I realized was an Arab. We rode without exchanging words. I needed silence to screen the entire universe of events that had occurred over the last few days. In turn, he seemed to be passionate about quietness, and to have a well-structured sense of peace within himself. However, something in him caught my attention. During the crossing, because of the strong sun reflecting on the white sands and of the wind that dispersed sand all around, almost everyone wore sunglasses to protect their eyes. I could notice that the lenses of his glasses were too scratched, to the point I doubted if one could see anything through them. I restrained myself, not to meddle in his life. On the other hand, I had in my saddlebag a spare pair of sunglasses. I felt my heart insisting that I offer them to him.

It didn’t take long, and we received the order to stop, for the usual midday quick meal and brief rest. Because of the usual disturbance the stop caused, I lost the man from sight. Only a while later I saw where he was. Filled with compassion, I mustered my courage and offered him the spare glasses I had. The man was seated on a large rug and, without replying to my offer, invited me to sit next to him. When I did, he offered me dates and nuts, an act of kindness and hospitality. I introduced myself and he did the same. His name was Mohamed. I told him I was concerned that it was probably difficult for him to see because of how scratched the lenses of his glasses were. The man gave me a sweet smile and said: “I thank you from the bottom of my soul, but this is not necessary.” Before I could say anything else, he lowered his glasses to the tip of his nose to show me his opaque, grey eyes. He was blind.

I apologized profusely. Mohamed turned at me and asked: “Why do you apologize?” I said I was sorry for having embarrassed him at that moment. The man shook his head and explained: “You did not cause my blindness, nor did you know about it; therefore, there is no reason for embarrassment or an apology.” He put a nut in his mouth and continued: “Please, don’t feel bad. We all have great difficulty in seeing the truth, and in order to see the truth we don’t need eyes. Bottom line, we are all impaired, each one with their own type and degree. Understanding this is the root of compassion and patience we should have with the world. On the other hand, our impairment prompts us to overcome the cycle we experience in that moment. The impairment will make us see what we have refused to see.” He paused briefly and continued: “I can face impairment, whatever it is, as something definitive; that will make me a miserable. However, I can understand the impairment as a tool that will make me a master’s apprentice. The difference between one and the other is in the gaze I will allow myself to have. It is my choice.” He turned his face in my direction, as if he could see me, and said: “The blindness of my eyes is not an impairment. In fact, it was a gift the desert gave me.”

My mind was in turmoil, disturbed by many ideas. Out of politeness, I did not express them. As if Mohamed were capable of guessing my thoughts or if such thoughts were common to all those who spoke with him, he explained: “I know you are thinking I am delusional trying to extract something good out of a tragedy. Yes, being blind may seem disgraceful to all those who have good sight and cannot imagine living a miserable life not being able to see the colors of the day.” Embarrassed, I said that was what I was thinking. With sincere humility, he asked me if I would like to hear his story. I told him I would be honored if he told me about his life. Mohamed obliged: “I had always had perfect sight. I started to work with my father in my adolescent years. He was a wealthy grain trader, and I used to accompany him in journeys with caravans, to trade in the many oasis of the desert. After his death, I had no problem in taking over his business. My life was selling grains and having fun. When something went wrong or the outcome was not the one I had planned, I cursed life and got very angry. In time, without realizing it, I became arrogant and impatient. The employees did not like working for me, they did it merely out of necessity. The things of the world fascinated me for a short period but could not make me happy for a longer time. The days were short-lived with no substance or memory. Everything around me was heavy; the fun I had did not relieve my heart, which seemed suffocated, breathless, yearning to breathe.” He paused again, trying to harness distant thoughts, and whispered as if telling a secret: “Hearts breathe love and light.”

“I became a sulky, grave, ill-humored person. In fact, that was a mask to hide from the world, and even from myself, how empty and unhappy I was. Until one day, during one of my journeys through the desert, we were suddenly caught by a strong sandstorm. I was not wearing glasses. Grains of sand hit me in the eye violently and perforated my cornea.” 

Mohamed’s narrative was interrupted by the order to continue the journey. We paired our camels and he continued his story: “Of course, at first I thought I was unlucky and saw myself eternally unhappy. However, I had to keep on trading grains, that was the only skill I had to make a living. I had got used to a life of spree and luxuries, and realized I had to adjust to my new reality. And so I did.”

“Little by little, because I could no longer enjoy the colors of the world, I had to learn how to dazzle myself with the lights of the soul. Because I could not see the face of people who spoke to me and their reactions, I learned how to feel their emotions, whether from their tone of voice, their pauses, their breathing, their silence. I realized that mute words reflect mute feelings; words unsaid talk louder than those that are voiced. I had the chance of knowing the voice of silence; the true discourse of the soul which, many a time, is expressed with no words.” He paused briefly, so that I could begin to coordinate my reasoning, and then continued: “Because it was difficult for me to enjoy the amusement of the world, I begun paying attention to the joys of the heart. What a difference it made! Not being able to see what was outside, I started to see what was inside; inside me, inside the other. I learned how to gauge the breadth of a word, the discourse of a breath, the content of silence, a full text about love that existed in a single tight hug. The language of the heart is the language of truth, the one we use to decode life. I had a treasure I did not know about, because of the outcries of the world. The opportunity of getting to know myself opened the ways for me to know the beauty of others and of life. Then, I discovered an amazing universe that had to be rebuilt, because it was about to collapse, due to lack of proper use.”

“The blindness of my eyes, at least for me, was the biggest adventure of all, because it enabled me to undergo the fantastic transformations possible for the soul. By losing my sight, I found my heart. Not having sight does not prevent me from looking; it just changes how I see. By changing my gaze, I learned how to feel; that changed the way I crossed the desert. Therefore, the desert changed for me. Crossing it became much easier.” 

I continued talking to Mohamed for the remainder of the day, with him telling me details of his story. It was a narrative that mixed the oddness and fascination of a different gaze, and also revealed a sweet, happy man. Episodes of his life were recounted with lightness and humor, and devoid of any resentment. The conversation continued until we stopped to set up camp for the night. We said our goodbyes and I went to take care of my chores.

After dinner, I moved away from the hubbub of the camp, to pray, meditate and reflect. This had been a different day, without the strong emotions of the previous days. It was a more serene type of emotions, however deep they were. I sat on the sand. When, out of pure instinct, I closed my eyes to dive deep in my universe of emotions and ideas, I couldn’t help remembering what Mohammed had taught me about the blindness. Yes, we normally close our eyes when we want to look inside us, to feel and think more clearly and to encounter ourselves. Yes, truth is available all the time, but we stubbornly insist on not seeing it. Thankful, I smiled to myself.

On that quiet day, different from all others because of the many adventures we had had on the crossing, I thought how the arts need magical realism, or even the absurd, to show a reality that exists beyond reality. It is as if reality changed its face as we opened the curtains, until we found the next one, with endless curtains behind, one after the other. Old realities become mere fiction with the opening and closing of curtains. But, is it all necessary for one to find the truth? No. The hidden depth is also in the simplicity of the days, in the apparent ordinariness of every day. In them one finds the answers for any question. Knowing how to see and understand the timing of each response is the chore we must do for the art of existing. How is the timing of each response determined? By one’s capability of changing the gaze… and to look inside oneself… and to look beyond oneself.

I spent a long time involved in my thoughts. Then, with my eyes open, I looked at the cloak of stars that covered the desert. What a day that had been! I thought about Mohamed’s journey; of how, to the hasty eyes, his was a sad existence whereas in fact, his was an admirable story. When I was about to stand up to return to camp, I heard a familiar voice behind me: “Nothing is sadder than the story of a person with no story. The greatness of a story is not in the adventures we experience in the world, but in the adventure of transformations the world was capable of venturing us into.” 

“The best story one has to tell is the story of their own life; not the story of heroic actions around the world, of titles of nobility or newspaper headlines, but of overcoming and excelling within their world. Unknown people, of simple, humble gestures, unadvertised but filled with honesty and love are, in fact, the authors of the true history of the world; they are the ones who maintain the world in light.”

Before I could say anything, she added: “The world does not need heroes. Suffice those people whose soul is in full bloom and whose heart is at the tip of their fingers. It all starts with a sensitive gaze.” 

She turned around and left. I followed the beautiful woman with lapis-lazuli eyes until she disappeared, before my eyes, in the vastness of the desert night. 

Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.

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