martes, 12 de marzo de 2013


This is an old piece from 1989 or 1990.  But the memories are as clear as the day I sat in the shade of a canopy and wrote them.

Bismillah, I have finished scrubbing the black-bottomed pots and the exotic cutlery in the tiny back kitchen at the Inn of the Mullah Nasrudin’s Donkey.  The Inn, spread beneath the gaily-colored canopies on a wide bed of straw, sleepily rests (like the donkey it is named after) at the top of Traders’ Market, where merchants, travelers, gypsies, laborers, dancing girls, peasants and the occasional seafarer come to find shelter or comradeship or romance or excitement.  Here, with the fragrant aura of spices and Turkish coffee floating on the breeze, they noisily suck through their teeth the boiling chai or strong black Eastern coffee.

Under the festive banners waving slowly in winds which shake out a fine coat of dust, the sprawl of shanties and tents which border the marketplace is nestled in a serene valley, not far from the highway that leads to the great city.  The little valley is watched over by lazily-circling hawks or raucous crows in the daytime and, in the nighttime chill, by the silently swooping owls.

Now, under heaped-up tumbles of clouds, the rolling hills languidly bathe in the sun’s clear light.  I can see blue jays slip between the swaying bright mustard stems, stems which seem just barely strong enough to hold the fragile weight of the jays.  The low hillocks around are like seas of tall grass, deep greens fading to the tan of dried straw, undulating currents and waves in the breezes.

And in the deserted little tent-town, the hard clay roads around Traders’ Market will grow even more silent in the glowing mantle of twilight.  Those of us who stay here between the crowded and noisy market-days, who labor building or repairing, or who feed those who labor or make wares to sell – those of us for whom this Valley of the Owl is now home, even for a little while – we will gather under the wide canopy of the Inn of the Mullah Nasrudin’s Donkey for our evening meal and we shall talk or play music and warm ourselves with the Mullah’s hot drinks.

But that will be much later, and just now, the kitchen having been patiently cleaned and my morning soup finished, I have put on my mirrored skullcap and my wide chain bracelets and I have come to sit in the long back camp off the Inn.  The back camp is a wide oval yard surrounded by tented beds under another bright canopy, littered at one end with the tools and brooms and buckets that are used in the Inn.  The rest of the yard is more domestic, strewn with the makings of extended camp:  bags overflowing with clothing, laundry strung on ropes, the cases of musical instruments stacked haphazardly against a wall, the belongings of the servers and workers at the Inn.

Out across the fields of high grass that drape the low curve of the swelling hills – not so far, though, as the line of dark oaks which seem to stand with unmoving branches even in the strongly gusting wind – a stout young man is working, digging a post-hole for another tent pole, his broad back shiny with sweat, his movements slow and deliberate in the gathering heat.  Around me are the sounds of the coffee-house:  the slow whisper of the broom as the sweeper makes his way through the empty kitchen, the gentle scrapings of a fiddle being tuned, the ratcheting sound of the cards as the players gossip among themselves, the counterpoints of several hammers striking the notes of different nails.

I am at home here – oddly at home in this travelers’ camp, in the very timelessness of this stopping-off place, this passing-through place, this temporary home of ever-returning happinesses.  It is among the changing faces of this host of travelers that I have found a comfort.  From wherever it is that they come, on the way to wherever it is that they are going, in the shade of the Inn their paths meet.

To the crossroads of Traders’ Market they come, with smiles or with tears, wise or brash or cautious or cunning, to buy and sell, to trade and argue, to learn and teach, to touch and share and fight and love, each with the other:  the merchants in long coats and colored jackets and foreign-looking hats, dancing girls caressed by their veils and bangles and bells, laborers in rough shirts or shirtless with neck-scarves pulled over faces against the dust, the laughing dark-eyed belly dancer with the lotus tattoo on her face, the freebooter who has found his sea-wit more profitable upon the land, jugglers and jokesters  who entertain travelers for a few coins, serving-girls looking chastely proper or adventurous and sultry, the artists and musicians who paint or play in the background, adding the gentle spices of their several Muses to our lives.

And late at night the gambling men drink strong spirits with their devil-black coffee, or strong spirits from hand-to-handed bottles between laughs and lies and odd bits of their stories tossed out like stray bets in their games.  And in the slow morning, the servers step to the rhythm of the Mullah’s snores… ah, the Mullah – always the Mullah, grand and watchful, a great slow presence amid the busy activity of the coffeehouse.

From my spot in the back-camp, I hear among these sounds the marketplace picking up its pace, seeming to stretch and yawn in the sun as if in preparation for a busy afternoon.  I realise that the quiet time will soon end.  For in a few days it will be Market Day, and the crowds will come – like faraway thunder approaching, like the horizon’s gathering dustcloud moving ever closer, inevitable, inescapable.

The crowds – foreigners in their own land, it seems, restless and impatient and rude – are foreign to themselves and are foreign to us, who were born side by their sides, who live and love at the shore of their busy world, who speak the same language differently and seek other goals and see other dreams under the same velvet sky of night.  And when they come, those crowds – trying to touch another life though their arms are too short and their hearts too hollow, to touch a bit of the life that flows through our eyes and through the tongues of our hearts, through our bonds and friendships – when they come, then shall we don our festal masks and sing them the smells of the gypsy fires, the eerie color of the rose-lipped dawn in the high mountain passes,  the lover’s caress of gentle waves in far-off silksanded bays.

And one or two will come out of the crowd, will be able to hear our hearts’ songs and know something of our thoughts – and some of us will talk with them and smile openly and friendships will be born.  And around that little scene of happiness in the crowded and noisy Traders’ Market, others of us will sell our wares and sing our songs and pocket the coins of our labors.

After the revel is ended, when the drinking and dancing and buying and trading is done, then back to the near-empty marketplace shall we meet again – here, it will be here in this quiet Traders’ Market that we shall gather.  And in the long hot afternoons, under the breeze-kissed canopies, those of us who live here will share our coffee or chai and gossip and tell of what has passed on Market Day.  And once again, beneath the gliding hawks, the sounds of quiet labor will echo in the Valley of the Owl.

Yes, today is quiet, the thunder and dust of the crowd is far away and my prayers are all said, and the long-handled coffee urns and the bright slick knives have all been cleaned with care, ma’ashallah.

© 2012 Hakim - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: use without profit allowed, but only with author’s express written permission. Please don't wake up my attorney. Please.