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There was once a Thief who made his living by stealing from pilgrims along the road between Mecca and Medina. He was a Bedouin who had been born among the dunes and had never known a father. The priests too were alien to him and he cared nothing for the Prophet or his laws. Since he had been raised by several mothers who had all died before he learned the art of picking pockets, he had received little love and no schooling. But he had always been free.
Freedom, for the Bedouin, was the desert air he breathed. It was that open space of possibility between the known and the denied, that uninhabited place of expectation between apparent facts. He had been born to this inheritance of emptiness; it was a legacy that had been left him gratis. Even as a boy he knew the value of it but he still had to define this freedom for himself. City dwellers, he discovered, did not trust such freedom: they bound its myriad meanings within human wills and walls. The only place he found its vestiges in huddled towns and squalid villages was in those secret gardens where sweet fruit trees bloomed. The wilderness still flourished there, like the memory of orange blossom, within a courtyard, by a pool; even there the seeds of freedom grew, in spite of confined space. But it was not enough for the Bedouin. He longed for vast immensities.
This was why the desert was his charter. To guess remained a birthright here and lack of proof was evidence enough of immortality. These rolling sands permitted endless interpretations; these hills and valleys providedinfinite opportunity for conjecture. And though he had been orphaned young he had never felt forlorn in the desert, for his head had always echoed with its various voices. It had been a mother and a father to him, a teacher, a lover and a guide.
Despite his illiteracy, the desert made a scholar of him too. He discovered whole treatises hidden in sandstorms; he read a thousand poems inscribed across the wide horizon. When his soul was unsullied, at the hour of sunrise, he could understand the language of the sand. By the age of twenty, he knew the secret paths along the creviced cliffs and could read the riddles in the moving dunes. He analysed each cloud of dust according to its hour, read the moon's messages in all her seasons and could tell the voice of every star. The wind was his religion and the planet Venus was his love and he had found the traces of their will in rocks and desert valleys. Above all, he knew how to hide and steal and disappear along the gullies of the road between Jiddah and the twin holy cities. And it was for this reason that he had fallen in with a group of bandits who used him as their guide.
It was an easy step from picking pockets to serving the bandits. Since boyhood, the Bedouin had spied on those who stopped by wayside shrines and eavesdropped on their conversations by the village wells. He learned about their purposes, assessed their weaknesses, and ambushed them along the pilgrim road. Sometimes he even hired himself out to them as a special guide. But it was not always pockets that supplied the greatest treasures. As a young boy he had been fascinated by one man prostrate on the sands whose habit was to pick his nose tranquilly throughout his prayers. He had been barely old enough to finger his presumptive beard when another propositioned him in the coffee house and gave him more than he had bargained for. And on a third occasion in his early youth, the sheer extravagance of a pilgrim's hypocrisy had caused him to flee from the man without retrieving a single coin. In fact, he owed the pilgrims less for his livelihood than for a certain ability he had learned from them to distinguish between social piety and sincere faith.
In all the years he had been a thief, he had not found many who valued their faith above their financial worth. Most of the pilgrims seemed to address a cipher whom he could not recognize as the One who made him shiver with ardour on the edge of a quicksand or tremble with fear at the lip of a precipice. Their religion demanded much external gesture but showed little evidence of that terror by which he judged the presence of the Divine. Since he concluded that the pilgrims' god was not his god, he had no qualms about stealing from them.
But life for a lonely thief was hard and there had been times of extreme indigence when he too had been tempted to ask for alms under the guise of devotion. It was from this terrible compromise that the bandits had saved him. They had found him begging on the road to Mecca and shamed him with their oaths in which he sensed no blasphemy. They also offered him protection, for the dangers of the desert lay less in quicksands than in men. In exchange for his help as a guide, the bandits protected the Bedouin from harassment at the hands of savage tribes. Their chieftain needed this desert lizard to alert him to the presence of the richer caravans before his rivals, and to some extent he needed them. He made a bargain with them then and served them in order to be safe from them; he gave up his liberty because he was still young enough to believe himself free. And as a result of this contract, he had stayed true to his cherished dreams so far. For he hoped, one day, to be as wealthy as a prince.
Such dreams, had they been shared, would have shown the other bandits that this Thief not only lacked shrewdness, but was a naive and eccentric fellow. It was not immediately apparent, however. His eyes were narrow and as sharp as a hawk's, and of a disconcerting colour: vacant as the blue sky to reflect what might be seen on the horizon, green when he turned his gaze on the human face. At times they held a strange tincture of yellow which people remembered afterwards with unease. His nose too was like a hawk's beak, and his skin was leathered by the sun and almost black. His hair, prematurely grey with dust, was tangled in ragged tufts and tied back with a band which had once been an indigo blue. He moved with the speed of light and barely left a tread behind him, for he was not tall or heavy but small, agile, wiry and subtle. He was a wild man.
But despite his disturbing eyes and sharp nose, despite his savage and ruthless appearance, he was a dreamer, this Bedouin. He was a romantic. He heard the voices of his freedom in the wind and in the sands; he was attuned to them at all times. The other bandits said he was a coward because he would not stand and fight a man: he preferred to turn and run. They did not understand that this was because he loved his freedom absolutely. For his voices told him never to compromise with anyone but only to serve the stars, the moon and sun.
He listened to the voices of men too, however, in order to better serve the bandits. And though he was deaf to the voices in the mosque, he was alert to the ones in the marketplace. When the pilgrims put aside their prayer books and spoke in their own voices, he followed them all the way. For these reflected their worldly concerns and provided a road map of their anxieties. When they argued with each other, when they bargained, when they complained, he could distinguish between their wealth and poverty, their loss and his gain. He had become an acute listener and could follow the voices of men all the way from their lips into their pockets.
One evening, after several years in the service of the bandits, the Thief heard rumours at a roadside inn of a rich merchant and his caravan, which was expected to pass by in the next few days. So abundant was the wealth of pearls and jewels in his train, they said, that the shimmer of it caused the sun to set and forget to rise again. So laden were the mules and camels in this caravan that they carved a track of pure gold through the rocky paths. Here was silver that outshone the moon, they murmured, and all the wealth of the Orient contained in a few saddlebags. Here were sweets and spices fit for a wedding feast as well as a funeral! According to some, this merchant came from Shiraz and was performing his hajj; according to others he was from Bushire and was en route to Damascus in order to conduct his business affairs. All contradiction about where he came from and conjecture about where he was going converged, however, in the general conviction that his wealth was vast and worth stealing.
Of course, there had been many such rumours and many subsequent raids over the years. None had proven as enriching in fact as in anticipation. But the Thief felt that this particular story was different from the rest. For some reason, the lure of this treasure seemed more enticing, this merchant sounded more wealthy, his caravan promised more opulence than ever dreamed of by the bandits. Anticipation made them drunk. And the Thief drank with them too.
That evening by their desert fires, as they planned an ambush, the chieftain called the Bedouin to his side. He had begun to love this guide of his, with his sinewy torso and ropelike legs. You could not call him a man, exactly, but he had spirit, unlike the rest of the jackals. Before all the others, he embraced him and gave him to drink from his cup. It was an unprecedented honour. They would share the stolen goods among them all, as was the custom, but this time the Bedouin was led to understand that he would gain the lion's share. The lion's share, that is, after the chieftain had taken the bulk of the booty, as was his personal due. It was a sign that he, the Thief, the Bedouin, was becoming a member of the band.
The bandits cheered lustily and spat secretly at the sand at their feet; they cheered loudly and cast each other sidelong glances of distrust. Their smiles were dim as they shifted around the fire, slapping arms, envious of warmth. There was something in this honour that they did not like.
It was said that each kiss received from the chieftain was worth a fortune and might cost one too. His embraces were more valuable than jewelled daggers and as dangerous. In the past, the Bedouin had yearned for such distinction and such love. There had been a time when this token of trust would have thrilled his pride as much as the escapade itself would have excited him. But something had changed. What ailed him now? What was his trouble?
His voices were restless. They whispered of the quicksands at the bandits' feet and the poison in the chieftain's kiss. They murmured of the solitary dunes, for they had become impatient with his life of compromise. They urged him to part company with these men and reap the rewards of theft alone. And they reminded him of a secret place to hoard his coins where none might find them. It was not the lion's share he wanted; it was not to share at all! It galled him to be allocated anything. As the chieftain embraced him, he felt himself drawing away. 'Run,' whispered his voices, 'before you lose your freedom ever to run again.'
He sat beside the chieftain watching him gnaw the lambs' bones and toss them one by one into the darkness beyond the firelight. This man would have the choice of three women in his tent tonight and the fairest from the raid. The Thief watched him lick the grease from his lips and pick the shreds of meat caught in his teeth and he remembered his own far different loves. 'There is more passion waiting for you under the naked moon,' murmured his voices, 'than in the chieftain's dreams.'
He scrutinized the circle of bandits round him too, and knew that their souls had been seized and possessed already. He watched their sullenness beneath the radiant stars, listened to their unhappy laughter like the hoot of night owls round him, felt their rapacious jealousies in the flickering darkness full of sparks. 'They are accustomed to envy what they'll never have,' muttered his voices, 'and they will always hate you because you do not envy them.'
The new moon rose limpid over the dunes and a chill night breeze tugged at his tangled hair. The moon had one message; the bitter breeze another. She was his advocate; the breeze his accuser. She bore witness that the contract had changed, the time had come. The breeze whispered that this moment had been long coming and the terms of the contract were overdue. And as they argued, the desert was filled with their voices.
'A fine coward,' whistled the breeze harshly. 'A better hypocrite than any pilgrim, a worse liar than any mirage!' The bandits were drinking with wild abandon and were becoming rowdy around the fire which the fierce wind whipped into their faces.
'But it was different before,' murmured the moon, and her argument was so compelling that the chieftain lifted his face to her momentarily. 'Then he was a boy and now he is a man,' she continued, but it seemed that the chieftain was unconvinced by this lunar logic, for he turned away immediately as one of the bandits told a vulgar joke.
'If there is a difference between what he feels and what he does,' sneered the breeze, 'what difference is there then between him and those he so despises?' The Bedouin shuddered at the accusation and pulled his jellaba closer round him in the shadows. The wind had grown bitter. 'How can he rob the pilgrims when he's worse than they are?' it mocked.
'His original bargain had been to exchange his freedom for protection,' replied the moon quietly, 'but now he prefers liberty at any price.' And she pulled herself loose from a last tag of cloud to prove it, and sailed eloquently into the dark dunes of the uncharted universe.
The Thief heard the breeze betray him, but it seemed the bandits did not. He heard the moon defend him, but it seemed the chieftain did not. Even when the stars gave evidence, one by one, citing examples from far-off suns, presenting proofs from the passing seasons, no one but the Bedouin seemed aware that the time had turned, that the terms of the contract had shifted, irrevocably altered.
But there was a reason why the Thief had not abandoned the bandits yet. He feared revenge. His fears buzzed in his head like flies in swampy watering holes; they emitted sharp cries, like the carrion birds above. The chieftain had an insatiable appetite for vengeance and was ruthless with traitors. The Bedouin knew that if he ran away the chieftain would hunt him down and kill him; he would not deviate from this course. He knew the bandits would track him down wherever he might hide, would stab him in the back and slit his throat and cut his tongue and manhood off and plunge their hands into his liver and his heart. They were a bloodthirsty and pitiless lot. Each time he thought to flee, his voices hissed that it would be towards his death.
There was only one way he could buy his freedom back and live, and that was if he were rich. It was perhaps the greatest sign of his naivety that he thought this. It was more like faith than thought, in fact, and had an ardent, simple voice. Full of the day's hope it gathered in the valleys of his heart. Fresh as the morning dew it assured him there was a way out of his dilemma. It told him that if the lure of stolen wealth were sufficiently great, if he could steal enough of it alone, if he could bribe the bandits to give him his freedom, then he need be no man's servant: he could command the absolute freedom he desired.
And now it seemed the opportunity was at hand. Since he had earned the chieftain's trust and been singled out for special favours, the bandits would have no reason to suspect his betrayal. If the caravan was as laden with wealth as they all seemed to suggest, he might have the chance to steal enough to bargain with. Mesmerized by possibility, the Bedouin succumbed to his restless voices. That very night, after serving the bandits faithfully for several years and finally earning their acceptance, after being specially favoured by the dagger point of his chieftain's love, the Thief stole away from his masters and vanished into the desert.
What People are Saying About This
[A] remarkable fable."
(William Paden, author of World Religion and Interpreting the Sacred)