It’s an awkward thing, meeting a stranger at a water hole. Do you greet him? Do you place a knife between his ribs? Will he place one between yours?
My camel didn’t care either way. She smelled water and it had been days. It’s true what they say about camels: nasty temper, evil breath. But in a sandstorm, when you’re pressed up against her side and she’s the only thing between you and destruction; or in one of those cursed moments when reality eats away at your very soul and you understand that there is nothing behind you, or ahead of you, or all around you but the beautiful, blasted sand—in such moments who cares about temper or bad breath? Then she is little short of salvation. So if she needs water, you stop, stranger or no stranger.
No one threw knife or spear as we approached, which was a good sign. Of course, if you don’t kill each other, you have to share food. But that works both ways; I’ve had some good meals this way. And a stranger is only a stranger until you learn his name; at which point you become companions, and ever afterwards banish loneliness by remembering one another with kindliness and nostalgia.
This companion’s name was Khaldoon, and he was a good companion. When we greeted one another he took my hand firmly and did not loosen his grip, even when his fingers made contact with my warts. If anything, he squeezed my hand tighter, held it for longer. A good companion, as I said.
We made a fire and shared food and when we had eaten our fill we stretched out and, under the light of the moon and the stars, we swapped tales.
‘Have you heard the tale of Ameer?’ I asked.
‘Ameer of the Negev? I have heard his name,’ said Khaldoon drily.
‘His son was kidnapped.’
Khaldoon whistled between gapped teeth. ‘The little boy? Such times we live in.’ He settled back, the better to enjoy the details.
Ameer’s son was captured by the sons of another tribe; old enmities—no one remembers the cause, but the insults traded and wounds inflicted over several generations made sure that no reconciliation would ever be possible.
The kidnappers sat back, waiting for the offer of a ransom. The first day, Ameer offered one hundred coins for the return of his son.
The kidnappers rubbed their hands with glee. ‘We will wait,’they said. ‘If it’s one hundred today, imagine what he will offer tomorrow!’
The second day, Ameer offered fifty coins.
The kidnappers were puzzled. ‘What madness is this?’ they asked. But they consoled themselves with the certain promise of a bigger offer the next day.
The third day, Ameer offered ten coins and on the fourth day, no offer came.
The kidnappers went to Ameer. ‘We have your son,’ they said. ‘What will you give us for his safe return?’
Ameer had eyes like a hawk, and the bearing of a prince—which is exactly what he was. ‘It has been four days,’ he said in a voice like the rustling of dry leaves on a hot wind. ‘I will give you nothing and I do not wish for my son’s return.’
A son is worth more than camels. A first-born son is worth more than gold. An only son—well, he is of greater worth than water in the desert.
Ameer had several tents full of daughters. And only one son.
‘Is he mad?’ said the kidnappers. ‘Are you mad?’ they asked him. ‘Your son, your only son, we will return him! But first you must pay us.’
But Ameer could not be persuaded. He would not pay and he did not want his son returned. This is how he explained it.
‘On the first day,’ he said, ‘my son was strong. He would have refused your water and your food. He would not have spoken a word to you, but remained straight-backed and unflinching. That was a son to be proud of. That son was worth one hundred coins. But you would not take my money.
On the second day he would be forced to accept a little water. But still, he was my son, and the future leader of his tribe. He was still worth fifty coins. But you would not take my money.
By the third day he would be forced to accept not just water, but a little food as well. He was no longer a son or a prince but still, he was a man, and a man is worth ten coins.
But now it has been four days. By now he will be begging for his life. He has no value as a son or a prince or a man.’
Ameer looked at them proudly. ‘You should have taken the one hundred coins,’ he said. ‘I have no son, but you have no money and an extra mouth to feed.’
Khaldoon was delighted with my story. ‘An excellent man!’ he guffawed. ‘A worthy leader of his tribe. What a lesson for us all!’
We passed the details back and forth between us for a while, savouring each detail of the crafty prince’s cruel pride.
‘I, too, have a story,’ said Khaldoon at last—as I knew he would. A good story is better than a good meal: a good meal occupies the stomach for a few hours but a good story occupies the mind for a lifetime. It was my turn to settle back in the sand and I did, watching the dying embers of the fire sending small sparks into the stillness of the night.
‘There was a man,’ said Khaldoon. ‘And one day he was invited to a wedding, with his mother.’
‘A man?’ I interrupted. ‘Of the Negev? The Sinai? A great leader, perhaps?’
‘No,’ said Khaldoon. ‘Just a humble man. A fisherman or a furniture maker. I’m really not sure. But wait. Just wait and you will hear.’
I was disappointed. I myself am a humble man. I like to hear of great men, not men like myself.
‘Wait,’ promised Khaldoon. ‘There was a man, and one day he was invited to the wedding of a kinsman.’
Now, the man was a humble man, but some say he had great powers. He was a magician, of sorts. He could change things in the minds of men, so that they thought they saw miracles and wonders. Who knows? Maybe they really did.
At the time of this wedding, he had not yet revealed his magic. He was unmarried, and he attended the wedding with his mother, a widow. It was the usual kind of celebration, many guests and lots of food. The bridegroom was not a rich man, but he was not a poor man either.
‘A good party,’ I said, enjoying the spectacle in the flames.
‘A good party,’ agreed Khaldoon, ‘until the wine ran out.’
‘The wine ran out?’ I said, and I sat up. ‘What kind of a party is that?’
‘Exactly,’ said Khaldoon. ‘Here you are, a stranger in the desert, and you see exactly how bad the situation was.’
The wine ran out and the bridegroom, the host, was about to be shamed. There are rules about these things. It does not matter what this man had achieved in the past, or what great things he would achieve in the future. For the rest of his life, and after he died, he would be known as the ungenerous host.
Now we return to our man, the fisherman or furniture maker, the humble son of a widow. His mother, who knew that he was in fact an accomplished magician, nudged him and said, ‘Son. Your cousin is about to be shamed. Do something.’
‘What can I do?’ said the man, shrugging.
His mother cast an impatient eye on him. ‘Your kinsman will be shamed!’ she insisted. ‘Help him.’
The man became angry. ‘It is not the right time,’ he said.
‘It is the perfect time! Why else would you have great gifts if not to spare those whom you love? Look! Look around you!’
The man looked at the radiant bride and her new husband, who was not so very handsome but whom she clearly loved dearly. They knew nothing of the shame about to befall them, the ridicule that would shortly engulf them—for the rules of hospitality are more important than riches.
The man turned to his mother. ‘I am not here to perform party tricks,’ he said quietly. ‘I am here to change the world. But I cannot let my kinsman suffer. I will help him.’
Then he summoned a servant, and said, ‘Take those barrels and fill them with water. Then fill everyone’s cup. Do it now.’
‘We cannot serve water!’ whispered the servant.
‘Do it,’ said the man.
The servant did as he was told. He filled the barrels with water and when he turned the tap to fill each glass, out came wine. And not just any wine either—it was ruby red and full-bodied and would have cost more than most of the guests earned in a year. Wine like this honoured he who served it and he who drank it; it was a veritable sacrament of hospitality.
‘The magician turned water into wine!’ I said, greatly entertained. ‘What a talent! What a trick!’
Khaldoon nodded. ‘The guests were most impressed. “What’s this?” they cried to the bridegroom. “Most hosts would serve the best wine first but you have saved it for last! What a great man you are!”’
‘And the magician’s mother was happy with him,’ I suggested.
‘I believe she was happy with him. Although the man himself was bashful. He enjoined her and the servant to say nothing of what he had done.’
‘He wanted no praise? No fame?’
‘Not for being a magician.’
‘Ah!’ I said, waggling my finger at Khaldoon. ‘But someone must have told the secret since you are here telling me this story.’
‘Indeed,’ said Khaldoon. ‘You see to the truth of the matter.’
We sat silently for a few moments, both of us viewing the scene in our head, the happy bride, the fortunate bridegroom.
‘What did he mean?’ I said suddenly. ‘The magician. What did he mean about changing the world?’
Khaldoon shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I believe he told a good story. And his tricks grew more ambitious—they say he drove out spirits and raised the dead. The usual.’
I clicked my tongue in disapproval. ‘What times we live in,’I said. ‘Still. It was a kindness to save his family’s honour.’
‘They say he was a kind man. They say that he treated everyone as a kinsman, even when it put his own life in danger.’
I was curious—I can’t say why, exactly. ‘What else do they say?’ I asked. ‘These warts of mine. I sometimes think they are an affliction of the mind, of my loneliness in this great and terrible desert.’ I coughed out of embarrassment and pretended to look for something in the pockets of my robe. ‘I thought I might consult a magician or a healer. Where might I find your man?’
Khaldoon gently shook his head. ‘He died, my friend.’
‘Ah,’ I said. ‘Don’t we all. When did he die?’
‘It was many years ago. His stories seem to be lasting a lot longer than he did, though. I still hear them, everywhere I go.’
‘What kind of stories?’
‘The kind that go into your ear and settle in your heart.’
I looked at him dubiously. Then something occurred to me. ‘That bride,’ I said. ‘She probably has sons running around the place by now.’
‘Grandsons, more like,’ said Khaldoon, and we laughed until the tears ran down our faces; but really I was crying, because the story made me understand how old I had become, and I had never realised it until now.
‘They say a great prophet is coming,’ I said, much later, when the fire was dead and we were both huddling against our camels for warmth.
Khaldoon shrugged. ‘They’ve been saying that for years.’
‘There have been omens.’
He cleared his throat and spat delicately into the night. ‘In the souq there are fifty new prophets a week, each promising more than the last.’
‘We could miss him, this prophet,’ I said. ‘In the crowd, we might not recognise him. He might come and go and we’d never know.’
‘What does it matter?’ said Khaldoon.‘As long as we have food in our bellies, camels in our pen, sons in our tents and friends at our campfire. What could any god want more for us? What could we want more for ourselves?’
We lay back. I have swum in the ocean at night with tiny creatures like pin-pricks of light that caress the skin like a daughter, all softness and trust. The sky was like that, that night, full of stars.
‘Wah!’ we both exclaimed, as a particularly bright star fell from the sky.
‘Somewhere in this huge sandpit of ours there is a pile of these fallen ones,’ said Khaldoon, pointing up, and we chuckled.
‘I am a rich man,’ said Khaldoon. ‘The stories we have shared, these stars in the sky, a camel at my back. I believe in the small things.’ He turned over and slept like a baby in its mother’s arms.
Me? I lay awake for many hours in my cradle of sand, staring into the face of the void, longing for meaning in this life of loneliness and toil.
The account of the man whose son was kidnapped is very loosely modelled on a traditional folk tale from Arab Folktales in the Penguin Folklore Library.
The account of the man who turned water into wine at a wedding comes from Chapter 2 of the Gospel of St John in The Bible.