Journeying from continent to continent and finding beauty in all of nature and every example of humanity, Distant Harmony presents a collection of short stories examining our lives and the ways in which we are connected to our past, to nature, and to our fellow human beings.Though the tales from author Abdus Sattar tell of poverty, grief, loss, and hunger throughout disparate cultures and diverse peoples, they communicate themes of a deep love of humanity and the unquenchable dignity of the human spirit. The selection “On the Euphrates” parallels the lives of two parents thousands of miles apart as they grieve for their children. “A Desert Sketch” provides a glimpse into the stark reality of Mariam, a Bedouin who ekes out a living with her father.With vivid imagery, Distant Harmony shows melodies of political oppression, regret, and longing, yet always tempered with love and hope.
Praise for Distant Harmony“The narrator of these tales journeys through time and space, fulfilling his own creative quest. Through his captivating voice and vision, Abdus Sattar transforms the disharmony of distant places into a rich melody, textured with strains of faraway wars, familial tragedy, yet always overpowering love.”—Brenda Hudson
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Distant HarmonyStories from around the World
By Abdus Sattar
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Abdus Sattar
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOn the Euphrates
Few places in the desert are capable of supporting even a small community for an extended period of time. So the Bedouins of this area, with their herds of sheep, goats, and camels, migrate from one barely fertile area to another. Each place offers shelter and sustains them for a time as nature replenishes the others. In the vast arid expanse of Mount Sinai, as in the Negev and the deserts of Arabia, the tribes of the Bedouin follow a traditional way of life and maintain a pastoral culture of exceptional grace, honor, and beauty as they journey by camel from oasis to oasis.
Most of the Bedouin tribes of the Sinai descend from immigrants of the Arabian Peninsula who arrived in Sinai sometime between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries. Today, many of Sinai's Bedouins have traded their traditional customs for the pursuits and conventions of the modern world on the banks of the Euphrates. This river originates from two major sources in the Armenian mountains and flows into the Persian Gulf. Its entire course runs 1,780 miles, more than two-thirds of which is navigable by boat. The Euphrates River has an ancient history. The city of Ur, founded at the mouth of the river, was the birthplace of Abraham and the future site of the majestic city of Babylon.
* * *
Najar Ali, a forty-eight-year-old Bedouin, whimpered as our chaplain carried him into the tent from the Euphrates riverside. The American attack struck the area on March 3, 2006, intending to gain control of the Iraqi insurgents. The severity and magnitude of the attack were beyond imagination. The American relief marshal dispatched investigators and relief workers. Rescue crews found the bodies of civilian victims spread all around, strewn in the sand next to their scattered belongings. There were thousands of survivors from the attack. Many lost their homes and were seriously injured. Buildings were flattened, and debris was spread everywhere. Nothing was spared—not homes, barns, or animals.
Many days had passed since the devastating attack on the Euphrates. The Bedouin man still waited, his injuries yet to be fully treated. Initially, those injuries were horrifying: a fractured skull, sheared-off limbs, compound fractures, and internal bleeding. The doctors had worked frantically with limited medication. Nevertheless, his most severe injury could not be seen. He carried his pain within his heart. Virtually everyone had lost a loved one in the attack. Hastily fashioned cemeteries overflowed with new graves.
During the attack, the blood had raced swiftly through Najar's veins as he carried a young, lifeless girl in his arms. The thought of being left alone in the world devastated him. The earthly hopes and dreams that he had once carried now faded for him. A flash of memory went through his mind: the thin, hungry face of his young girl as a little child, trying to fill her lamp with kerosene on a dark night on the Sinai Mountain. A sigh echoed through his mind.
"Oh, little girl, tell me what your life with your father writes on your face. Speak to me of the glory of your heart. Let us sing the song of remembrance."
The Bedouin's eyes wandered over the dewy haze draping the vast field of a new harvest. Slowly, the lids became heavy as feelings of love and loss lulled him into the oblivion of sleep.
Najar Ali embraced death with his own arms. His only daughter, merely fourteen years old, died pressed against his chest, dust and blood covering her garments. The young girl was laid to eternal rest down the mountain slope. Wind took the mountains in its clutches, but the lonely grave remained, etched with words proclaiming the glory of God. By midday, the desert sun burned the body. By midnight, the moonlight tried to soothe the soul. Inside the grave, the silent beauty played with angels, blessed with eternal peace where time and space no longer misted her view. The deadly bombs, the explosions, and the fires waged by ruthless man could not hurt or disturb her anymore.
* * *
A crisp breeze drifted across, but it was warm for a February evening, and one would almost have thought autumn had come. Mrs. Carolyn Autry had just finished her dinner when the shadow of her only son, Richard, darkened the door of her house.
Richard knocked. "Mom."
"Yes?" Carolyn replied from inside.
Carolyn entertained the thought of not opening the door, not discussing her son's intentions again, but as there was no sense in ignoring him, she rose and opened it. Richard walked in and flung himself down on the couch. A pale distress had already appeared on Carolyn's face.
Richard said quietly, "I want to talk to you, Mom."
"It seems like the time for talking is over. You ignored me by enlisting in the Marines."
"Yes, but I had a good reason."
She sighed, resigned. "Well, tell what it is."
"I intend to fight in the war in Iraq. I need to do my duty by serving my country, don't I?"
Before his mother could answer, Richard drew a folded letter from his pocket.
"What's that?" she asked.
"It's an appointment letter from the Marines."
"Has it already advanced this far? Oh no, son. No, you will not join the Marines," she protested weakly.
"Don't ask what I don't wish to tell you," she begged and flashed her appeal to him from her upturned face and shadowed eyes.
The words seemed to astonish and disturb Richard. "I'm more serious than you think."
"What a blind, young thing you are." She was irritated.
"I need to." He gave a sigh of discontent.
"It's a shame that we parents raise our children in such dangerous ignorance. You want to get involved in war because the politicians say it's your duty, whether their motive for fighting is a good one or not. They don't care what happens to the general hardworking public. They don't care if you get hurt or die!"
"I bear the responsibility to serve my country."
Carolyn fell into thought. The argument shouldn't end here. I'm worried and defenseless, and I'm being pressed to say something I shouldn't reveal. I can't think any more about it. It makes me too miserable. If I break down by falling into some fearful snare, my last state would be worse than this controversial situation.
"Richard, all the wealth and fame this world has to offer mean nothing if all my children aren't with me. I long for only one thing in heaven or on earth: to be with my children. Please understand and save yourself from the terrible fate that threatens my nightmares!"
Oh, God, I can't think of it! If my boy dies, I will surely die too, she thought.
Evening passed. The two customary gate lights at Carolyn's house were illuminated, casting a golden pool onto the driveway. Richard left the house while his mother watched his car slowly disappear under the dim streetlights. The dry autumn-like wind continued to blow.
* * *
Richard Autry had grown up on a farm in Pennsylvania, where farm trucks ground their gears as they rumbled down the ragged green hills. He had always dreamed of becoming a Marine, the living symbol of hope, courage, and uncommon valor. He joined the Marines right after finishing college, and he was sent to Iraq on an undisclosed mission.
At two thirty in the morning, Captain Martin began organizing his forces to launch an attack on the insurgents. One battalion was to cross the desert on foot and then proceed to a small village directly across the river. At the same time, two more battalions were to fan out in the lightly forested area to the right. As all of the forces approached the target from the west, the captain's half-dozen armored cars were to launch a head-on attack down the road. At three o'clock, as the first battalion was just beginning to get in their vehicles, mortars exploded all around, creating a fearful roar. Captain Martin, hidden behind a stone wall, fought with the enemy over a Kevlar helmet belonging to Richard Autry, who had died on the spot.
More than forty million American military men and women have served and fought to defend the freedom of our country. Final tributes are rendered to those who helped secure the blessings of liberty.
In Arlington National Cemetery, the body of Richard Autry lay in a closed casket, recently arrived from Iraq. In silent ceremony, soldiers folded the American flag in the form of a triangle, showing only the stars depicting the states of the Union against a blue background. One soldier placed the flag on top of the casket, just above the left shoulder of the deceased fighter. At the conclusion of the graveside ceremony, the pallbearers lifted the flag waist-high and held it there while one of the soldiers played "Taps" on a solitary bugle. The other soldier presented the flag to the veteran's younger sister, Robin, from a grateful nation.
With a quick, beating pulse, Robin's mind rebelled at the complex pattern of victory, honor, and finality bestowed on her brother. The impurities and earthly taints of the senseless death of her young brother stained her heart. Defying restraint, tears of sorrow streamed down her radiant cheeks, the shattering chaos of death silencing her future.
As the silver dawn broke upon the Susquehanna River, dewdrops shone like pearls on green blades and new blossoms across the hillside. Not far away, Richard's mother, lying alone on her deathbed, tried to remember the many dawns and twilights of days gone by. She now confronted her nightmares. The ultimate tragedy for a parent is to outlive a child.
* * *
Over the miles of sand, by the winding bank of the Euphrates, the Bedouin walked slowly. Far beyond human vision, above the clouds, his mind tried to grasp the image of his daughter in heaven. In spite of a mixture of grief and pain, he tried to hang on to hope and faith in divine fulfillment. He tried to understand the workings of the eternal seer and the mysteries of His creation.
He cried aloud, "Oh, Gracious One! Take me away from this world. Oh, Lord of heaven and earth, have mercy on me."
The gentle breeze created wondrous waves in the river as the setting sun usurped the light from the universe. Though the Bedouin had been content in his poverty, his heart was now full of pain and sorrow next to the rolling beauty of the Euphrates.
Babylon still stands, observing the ruins and destruction of a lost civilization. Equally oblivious to the broken hearts of the Bedouin and the soldier's dying mother, the Euphrates, in its ancient beauty, courses to the sea.
Shadows on the Moon
Amanda imagined that her father might come back with a deer-drawn sleigh sweeping along the track, curling around the Hudson River, and winding toward the dark oak trees of Central Park where birds sang endlessly.
Amid the crowded buildings of Manhattan, Christmas Day was crowded with the 9/11 survivors and their families. The survivors of the terrorist attack, isolated for days, stayed indoors for the most part after the incident. Although crowded, many of the families didn't come to the gathering, thinking a sudden attack could still happen outside the safe circle of the hearth. Such tragedies were best not risked or even thought about.
Years ago, when her father shared the story of Santa Claus, unseen powers were at play. Amanda thought that only her father understood those powers. Her father began to chant, composing a rhyme to show that he possessed Santa Claus's understanding of the workings of the world. When he sang, Amanda felt that bright, intense melodies fell from the sky and the earth began to move. Mountains trembled. Lakes spilled over their shores. After a long tale, the sky's last glow faded, the stars appeared, and she eventually fell asleep.
On this Christmas morning, nine-year-old Amanda woke up early and peered out the window. It was still dark. The Christmas service would begin soon in the nearby Manhattan church. She dressed and put on the warm coat her father had bought her two years ago. Afterward, she attempted to reach her umbrella from the top shelf, but it fell to the ground. Her body jerked, swaying awkwardly to one side.
The girl reached out for her mother. "Mom!"
"Yes!" Susan jolted upright in her bed.
Now, Amanda, who was about to receive the explosion of her mother's anger, stayed still.
* * *
For the last few days, it had occurred to Susan that Amanda quite often chatted to an imaginary friend. Her worries continued to grow. Compelled by something, Susan called her daughter to her side and spoke to her. "Whenever that pain of yours gets bad, don't forget to take your medicine, and don't take away the amulet the Indian spiritual man gave you."
"Okay, Mom," Amanda responded.
A single bell chimed in the little clock on the table. Susan looked at it. It was six thirty in the morning. She opened her bedroom window. A few of her neighbors stood in view. In some haste, she took a quick shower and dressed, wrapped herself in her shawl, and, with her daughter, set off down the road for the church.
* * *
The forty-year-old mother had taken on the sole responsibility of raising Amanda nearly two years before when Thomas Hurst, her husband, had left her for another woman. Her world was suddenly transformed. Her new life took on a different appearance. Amanda was seven, and she held many memories of her father.
After eight years of marriage, Thomas Hurst had often come out in open hostility toward Susan. After a particularly sharp argument one day, he had rushed out of the house. Upset, Susan had entered her bedroom, locking the door behind her. From that time forward, Susan was convinced that her husband, the man she had thought was dearest to her, had betrayed her for a long time. Their dissolute way of life had worn her out. Susan, now furious, frightened, and deeply shaken, thought to go to her brother if she really needed him someday.
Susan closed her robe and walked to the window, gazing out at the mystical town before her. She prayed to the Divine Master for wisdom, not to be consoled but to console, to find hope where there is despair. Throughout her bedroom, she found reminders of her husband. She felt distressed, and her physique lacked what it once had. She walked toward the mirror and gave herself a quick check, more out of force of habit than actual vanity.
Susan felt ungrounded. The incident had left her stranded in uncertainty, despair, and sadness with her little daughter. The darkness gradually thickened. As it fell, silence deepened. From her heart arose a question, "Why me?" She was angry and pacing there alone, utterly sick at heart.
As time passed, her financial affairs became steadily worse. Falling deeper and deeper into debt, Susan gave personal notes to the mortgage company and the other usurers, asking them to reduce the interest rates of her loans. When Susan thought herself on the edge of ruin, in desperation, she took a job as a seamstress.
Her shop was in a dark building on a narrow street of Queens, crowded with garbage ripening into decay, a street full of miseries of the flesh where women jeered at her for being weak and not revengeful. The women's insults made her aware of her own sham spirituality and the futility of her life. She at last saw clearly what hypocrisy her husband's life had been, unlike the shining, hollow emperor she loved.
Occasionally, sitting on a low wooden stool in a corner of her shop, Susan would speak of her husband and daughter. "When we grew up together as neighbors in Kentucky, I meekly obeyed all of Thomas's orders and endured his punishments. I was young, but I understood his character fairly well," she told Kelly, a new coworker and one she thought would become a good friend.
"Be strong for the fate that lies ahead of you, Susan," Kelly said. "From what I know of you and what you have told me, I know you are a woman of good character. You are honest and sincere, qualities that your husband must have deemed poor and ordinary."
Kelly's statement revealed the honest outlook of a person who, like so many others, was unsure of the meaning of truth, life, and death.
Susan kept talking. "I was a country girl and had not learned to ridicule everything like Thomas, the new smart city boy of New York. In the early years of our marriage, we stood by the roadside giving out handbills demonstrating justice, equality, and a race-free society. I thought my guidance and encouragement would raise everyone to be a leader of a new society."
While Amanda was little, Susan didn't give much thought to her daughter. Susan seemed happy to watch her play and laugh. At the age of seven, Amanda tried to take charge of the house. It was plain to see the little girl was trying to be her father's complete guardian.
After handing a bath towel to her father, Amanda would ask, "Won't you have your bath, Daddy?"
"Oh, yes," her father would answer with a perpetual smile on his face.
Excerpted from Distant Harmony by Abdus Sattar Copyright © 2012 by Abdus Sattar. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
On the Euphrates....................1
Shadows on the Moon....................8
In the Mind of a Dove....................15
A Desert Sketch....................27
The Brass Pitcher....................33
Journey of a Lonely Heart....................40
The Price of Freedom....................44
Legend of a Distant War....................54
The Glory of the Dust....................62
Paris to Geneva....................75