Al Sheikh Al Jabeli’s Journeys
Translated by Fadhil Abbas Al Musawi
It began with the telephone ringing while I was busy toppling the triumph of crossing to the second bank of the mind, saying to myself: “What else?” Was there anything after writing to make the fruit closer to the open mouths, especially after I’d passed forty-something? When I reflected on what had passed over the years, I discovered that I was moving in an empty circle exactly like the donkey of a waterwheel, and wondering what I had achieved up to this moment. What were my aspirations, accomplishments, and triumphs? The matter was only as resounding as the sound of its echoes—the long suffering nights, the moaning and the torment, the severe self-hunger, the slow wishes, and the dead words on the edges of lips. There were no ranks leading to good situations or victories. I had lived an actual autumn after being left by most of my friends and the one to whom I had given the fruit of my heart on a dish of gold and blood left me. She preferred gold and left blood covering my wounded heart. She married a very rich merchant in the town, leaving me to loneliness in front of pictures, pens, and old newspapers painted yellow with time.
Exactly at this point in my reverie, the telephone rang on my desk, returning me to my bitter reality. I raised the receiver reluctantly. Immediately I heard the voice of the editor-in-chief calling me—who was forgotten and cornered in one of the corners of this big newspaper office—to his study. After I sat in front of him, he ordered a cup of black coffee for me. I loved it be sweet but I endured the bitterness of the coffee hoping to hear something sweet from him.
“You, in your recent state are more than enough! Is there any profit from your existence in this newspaper?” He demanded.
I wanted to answer but he continued his fearful questioning:
“Of course, I know your ability in writing. I’ve read your old articles in different newspapers, but why this silence, and what is the use of this isolation?”
I wanted to answer but he blocked all my openings.
“Do you indeed like working with us?” He asked.
Before I could open my mouth, he continued, “If you want to stay, you can make a fresh start now, with a real and useful beginning. Indeed it must be fruitful!”
I said to myself, “Oh, Almighty God, here he is answering my questions concerning the profit and the fruit. Is it a telepathy that joined me to this man? Here he is interrupting the series of my thoughts and putting in front of me a long list of shrines and graves of many holy men, clergymen and seers, the significant and the companions of the route.”
Then I heard him saying, “I intend to run a series of investigative reports about these shrines. There were a lot of reporters whose names came up, but I have chosen you and directed a cameraman to accompany you in your tours and be under your command.”
Then he rose from his chair, announcing the end of the meeting, saying:
“I don’t want to see you in that cramped corner. Go to where the closed places wait for someone to open them and shed light on them. Don’t you want to be the conqueror?”
I smiled, saying to myself, “Here he is knocking on the same vocabulary that defined my reverie.”
When he saw my smile, he said, “Why are you smiling? The conquerors are too many and they are not just opening cities and provinces. There are hidden openings for the few who know them and you will be one of this small number.”
“Yes, you. You will conquer the forgotten shrines and revive them with your pen which is throbbing with life.”
Oh, God, he resurrects hope in my soul with an injection and flow into my inactive mind and blocks its door against sad memories.
I left his office and returned to my room which was surrounded by a universe of barriers that pushed me far from the vast movement of life. I turned to the list he had given me and read what it contained. It contained a lot of names of holy men: Maarof Al Karkhy, Bisher Al Hafy, Al Sury Al Saqti, Al Harith Al Muhasby, Al Junaid Al Baghdadi, Ahmad Al Noori, Abu Baker Al Shibly, Al Hussein Bin Mansour Al Halaj, Ibn Arabi, Al Nafry, Bahlool Al Majnoon, Ibrahim Ibn Adham, Mohammad Ibn, Ali Al Jabeli… I don’t know why the last name on the list in particular reminded me of my earliest childhood when my father took me on Thursday nights to those shrines to share in the rites of the dervishes and diviners that frightened me too much.
I took the cameraman and went to those places, but I failed to enter even one of those shrines. By chance I found a mosque right as noon prayer was about to begin. I told my colleague, the cameraman, to have a little rest and pray in this mosque.
When we sat, a young man accompanied by an old man wearing a turban sat near us. They were arguing audibly.
I heard the young man say, “But I don’t know him, indeed. How can I know him?”
“He knows you and wants you to go to him. He has chosen you. Isn’t that enough?” The turbaned man said.
I followed their strange dialogue. The man with the turban was covertly looking at me from the corners of his eyes.
Then he said to the young man, “Go to him, look for him and your heart will lead you to him!”
This time he looked steadily at me, then he returned to talking to the young man.
“Go out of this prison and leave the house of illusion and be far away of these graves whose dwellers were perishable and whose people are injustice.”
I said to myself, “He is addressing me. Speaking to my neighbor so I might listen.”
When we left the mosque, I told my colleague, the cameraman, about what had happened inside.
“This is correct; usually the matter happens through a code or a message. Only the receiver understands it. Here you understand the message. It was certainly sent for you, not to the young man!” he said.
“But who is ‘he?’ Is he Al Sheikh Al Jabeli himself? Where is he? Who has the evidence of his existence and who knows of his traveling and settlements?” I said.
I returned to my references and some bibliographies in the libraries to look for him in the texts and margins of books, until I checked the entire collection piece by piece. All the while the name of Al Sheikh was repeated not only in my work but also in my house as well—in my dreams, my imagination, my awareness. I had a dream that I entered an inn crowded with dervishes, and a beautiful woman received me and lead me into a room where three dervishes entered and welcomed me warmly. One of them held my hand and began to read some talismans and sayings, then he beat the back of my right hand. When I woke up, I felt excessive rest.
Since my dream, whenever I met a person I asked him about Al Sheikh Al Jabeli. One day I accidentally met a beggar and after I put a piece of money in his open hand, I asked him if he knew something about Al Sheikh Al Jabeli. He kept silent for a while, his lower lip shivering, and he began gazing at me with eyes filled with doubt and mistrust. I repeated my question to him. He answered that he did not know anything. When he was about to leave, he stopped and said:
“Where have you heard his name?”
“It is a subject of study I want to write on,” I said.
“I was little when I saw him talking with my father in one of the mosques,” he said.
“How did you know he was Al Sheikh Al Jabeli?”
“My father told me and he was very happy to have met him!”
“Because few have met him, don’t you know that?”
“I do not know.”
“Well, now you know. How do you want to see him?”
“I don’t want to see him but to write about him.”
“How will you write about him if you haven’t seen him?”
I did not answer because he departed leaving me bewildered, plunging into a labyrinth without an opening. The following day I agreed with my colleague, the cameraman, to search what remained of the places on the list. We arrived at a narrow quarter surrounded by twisted branches and houses that threatened to collapse. I went directly to a carpenter’s shop. The carpenter was busy making antiquarian chairs and tables. When he saw me, he smiled and came toward me and welcomed me.
Before I could surprise him with my question, he said, “My heart is telling me that I’ll see you. So I’ve seen you now, indeed!”
“Do you know me?” I asked him, surprised.
“No, I don’t know you and I have never seen you in my life,” he answered.
“What a surprise! So how have you been waiting to see me?”
“Do you believe in dreams?”
“Of course, I believe in them.”
“I have seen you or a man who looks like you in a dream. I was lost and did not remember what happened after that.”
“Perhaps this man would help me in my research,” I thought.
“Do you know Al Sheikh Al Jabeli’s residence?” I asked him.
“Al Sheikh Al Jabeli!”
The carpenter kept silent and his eyes began looking for something in the sky as if he had lost something amidst the clouds.
“Yes, he is near here,” he said after a long pause.
“So, take me to him, please.”
The man led me along obscure alleys, leaving my colleague, the cameraman, far behind us. He began entering places I had not seen before: low, muddy houses and open doors, yards filled by naked children with heaps of excrement scattered everywhere. There were emaciated women with naked breasts milking pale yellow babies dying in their sweaty laps. We entered one of these houses where a boy with a beautiful appearance received us.
“Where is the Haja?” The carpenter asked the boy.
The boy stared strangely before answering, “She has gone out on business; she will come after a while. Why?”
“This man wants to visit Al Sheikh and write about him.”
The boy began examining me as if I were a fabulous creature recently descended from the sky.
“Al Hajia doesn’t allow anyone to visit Al Sheikh.”
“You know that well!”
“My son, why? Why doesn’t she allow anyone to visit Al Sheikh?” I asked the boy, confused.
“She always is resolute in this matter.”
I told the carpenter that I would wait for her to return, and I would persuade her. I sat near a child who was crying continuously while his mother tried to feed him with the nipple of her emaciated breast. He was suffocating and became pale. She released the nipple from between his lips and he returned to screaming. Suddenly the boy entered breathlessly saying:
“Al Haja arrives and wants to see you.”
The boy took me to a woman standing in the opening of a narrow alley, and she unveiled her bulged white marble chest from the edges of the open cloak, and some tufts of her coal black hair escaped from under the veil which retreated to the back of her head (If Al Haja was not old, she was at least in her forties, but her body still clung to retreating youth.) I greeted her and told her about my desire to visit Al Sheikh. After her agreement of course. She refused, nervously pretending that the building needed reconstruction and the shrine was unsuitable for visits.
“My lady, I don’t care for the building, what interests me is the person himself.
I have an insistent want to write about him,” I said to her.
“Where have you been before that? Why have you remembered Al Sheikh exactly now?” She answered with a clear convulsion. “Why haven’t you written to the authorities about the ultimate need for the reconstruction? Why?”
When she finished her speech, she veiled her body with her cloak in a dramatic movement and disappeared into the darkness of the alley. I went back to the carpenter, disappointed.
I stepped a few paces outside the alley, and, before I departed and bid farewell to the carpenter, I heard footsteps behind me. At once, I turned and saw the boy approaching me.
“Mr. I can let you enter Al Sheikh’s shrine,” he said.
“Yes, I know where Al Haja hides the keys.”
“But you will expose yourself to danger because of me.”
“Never mind, the importance thing is your visit. I love Al Sheikh and hate to see him enclosed all the time.”
We agreed to meet when Al Haja usually slept according to the boy. At the exact appointment, the boy came carrying the keys. I rose and walked behind him while my colleague, the cameraman, followed. We went through the opening of the alley. Wet darkness swallowed and carried us as if we were flying in intervals of material, penetrating mantles by ascending steps and ladders until I believed that I crossed into another universe I had not yet seen. A universe that had its own laws, creatures, stars, and galaxies. Eyes of light appeared from nearby corners of our souls washing our inners and freeing them of their masks, endowing us with a wonderful warmth we had never felt before. We entered a building on the verge of collapse through a wooden gate moaning of the heavy weight of time. There were faint lights coming from the closed shrine. When he opened the door of the shrine, the door squeaked announcing our entrance into the sacred place of Al Sheikh Al Jabeli. My colleague began to take pictures while he was moving around the shrine, which was shrouded in dust. I read two lines of poetry engraved on the wooden wall, painted with exfoliating black paint:
I traveled without supplies to my homeland,
Sadness is my caravan with worry and remorse
I say alas in the route of my problem
Who will treat a sick man tortured by pain.
I circled around the shrine like a butterfly trying to approach a light, forgetting myself and time and the danger of immolating my wings in the blaze. The boy drew my attention back by saying:
“Al Haja may wake up and come to the shrine.”
I was surprised to hear that.
“What will she do inside the shrine at this hour?” I asked.
“Of course she visits the shrine.”
“At this time?”
The boy kept silent, and I did not know what he meant. His silence suggested a secret he did not want to disclose. The following day, I felt haunted by the place and its magic. An unseen kneeling person in the hollow of light caught me of my hamstring and pulled me into his slight spaces, spaces leading me to paths of spirits’ faint light which lit the desired shelters of soul to the light that would free it from its endless labyrinths. I began to forget my friends and my life completely and even my feelings of helplessness after that woman had left me. I forgot everything. I came back to the shrine again, and the boy did what he had done the first time. I began to prolong my stays there, crying bitterly in front of the shrine as if I were in a secret dialogue with Al Sheikh’s spirit flying like a nightingale around the box of the shrine, What made me stay here? Which voice is this that enters me in Al Sheikh’s cocoon and his luminous lamp?
One day, the boy told me to shorten my visit because Al Haja had decided to enter the shrine that night. The boy knew the times of her visits to the shrine and knew well the rites she performed because she sent him to buy sticks of incense, candles, henna and other supplies. He warned me of the danger of coming, but I made the mad decision to insist on coming to the shrine and hiding in a place inside the building, which threatened to collapse around me. I agreed to be careful, a promise I made to this boy I loved too much and depended on more than the little money I gave him for his services indicated. He let me inside and took me to a safe place far away from Al Haja’s eyes.
She entered wearing transparent black clothes. She removed her veil and put it on her shoulders. I watched her carry a pot of henna, sticks of incense, and lit candles.
She entered in Al Sheikh’s presence. She distributed the candles around the shrine and rubbed the bars of the shrine with the red paste of henna. She held the sticks of incense and continued moving round the shrine ,now redolent with the ritual scent.
She then sat in front of the head silently, closing her eyes as if she slept soundly. The boy came and warned me not to stay to the end of the secret rite. He said that I must go out at once. He insisted and begged me while I became obstinate and dismissed him severely.
“Then you have to bear the consequences of all that is coming!” He warned me and left, shaking his head.
He left me to worry over the meaning of what he had said. But soon I forgot the boy’s words when I saw Al Haja take off her clothes piece after piece till her under garments appeared. This revealed the details of her body. It was white from being so long hidden from the light of the sun. Momentarily, I heard sighs, moaning, groaning, and a sound of something shaking. With a sudden movement, she pulled off the last piece of her under garments and threw it far away, showing herself as a disgraceful nudist. Her body was released of its old chains as if it were a tiger leaving its cage, and began shaking, roaring, and showing its fangs of wants through hissing, throbs, grumbles and rattles. The woman changed into a dumb creature embodied through a transparent mirror, in which the curtains of oblivion withdrew from her body so her body appeared reflected. The mirror reflected both the body of her hidden depths and the shape of the furious woman until they were fixed together as one. The woman became a mirror and the mirror became a lustful and ophidian body hissing and slithering towards the shrine and its open door from the side of the head. I saw her as a white snake shining under the glittering of her desire and the candles’ wicks. A snake showing her flexible skin after she removed her old skin. Then she went through the open door of the shrine and closed it behind her. At that moment the candles extinguished and the sticks of the incense were no longer blazing. The place sank in deep silence and darkness.
After this incident, I stayed in bed suffering fits of fever and disturbing dreams and nightmares in which that woman was moving, changing into a lustful snake disappearing into its mirror and turning around me, entering my body as it entered that shrine. Eventually, I forgot the matter of writing and investigating for the newspaper and the editor-in-chief. I was busy with Al Sheikh Al Jabeli who had kidnapped me suddenly of all my occupations and took me there where he was lying, departing, traveling, and appearing. While I was languishing in bed, I completed my research about him and decided to hide it, far away from the light of day, friends’ intrusive eyes, and the officials’ hands. But desire pushed me again to return to Al Seikh’s shrine. It was as if I was drugged and unable to prevent my steps from leading me back. I found the shrine wide open and full of people; men, women, children, dervishes, Indian monks, Afghans, Kurds, Pakistanis, Turks, Charkas, and different nationalities. I did not see the carpenter, the boy, or the devilish Al Haja who carried the keys. Everything was changed and I was hardly acquainted with the place. I did not know how, but my eyes fell on the two lines of poetry that completed the ones I had read when I first entered:
The desire fills me and disaffection forbids me,
The limit is impossible periodically and demolished.
Oh, secret of my secret and the secret of my soul in my body
How can I tolerate when the joining rope is cut?
Suddenly I heard a faint voice entering through my ears into my soul slowly and clearly.
“Here, you read the completion, finish what you have begun because the ways to ascend to him are equal to the breaths of the creatures, and don’t forget to follow the stoics and the men of knowledge.”
When I turned, I found a man of a venerable appearance in tatters leaning on a green branch, pulling his cloak onto his shoulders. He held my hand and led me to a vacant corner and sat me there. He was contemplating my face with clear smiling eyes, surrounding me with strange quietness. I surrendered to him, listening to my heart’s palpitations. They became cheerful, yearning for extra time to receive this gladness and exultation and sweet relaxation. The man said:
“My Sheikh, God have mercy on him, was alone worshipping, self-content, praying, fasting, God-fearing. No one would enter his cell, but rarely. One day the prison guards decided to torment Al Sheikh, so they sent a very beautiful woman to him to chant and distract him from his evening prayers. She entered and stayed for a long time waiting for him to finish his prayers, but he continued without stopping till the woman became fed up and wanted leave the cell.
‘What happens to you girl, I see you become bored,’ he said.
‘Oh, Al Sheikh, I…I…want..,’ she stuttered.
He interrupted her, saying:
‘I know what you want. You have to go where you come from.’
‘I want to sit beside you!’ she said.
“Then she came closer to him. At that moment he threw his cloak on her. She was calmed completely as if she had fallen into a dream. She remained sleeping for a long time and when she woke up, she threw her head at his feet, crying and apologizing repentantly till she washed his feet with her hot tears. The woman remained with him until the guards missed her. When they came, they were surprised to see her praying behind him, her body wrapped with his cloak. They pulled her forcefully outside his cell.
‘What happened to you?’ they asked her.
‘I have seen what you haven’t seen before. Al Sheikh has been living in his own paradise in the wide gardens surrounded by maids, boys, and rivers of wine and yogurt. He was fenced by pillows, carpets, and pavilions. He was surrounded by halos of light and angels’ wings flying around him and there were praises and invocations produced by tender voices. Oh, brothers, why have you taken me out of there? Why?
Now leave me alone. I’ll return to him!’
“She returned to him, but alas she did not find anything there. My Sheikh traveled to another place and another cell. She remained in the same gleaming jail alone, praying, renouncing worldly pleasure.”
When the man finished he remained silent.
“You, Al Sheikh, who are you?” I asked.
“Oh, my son, what shall I say? The utterance is helpless and the speaker is dumb and the listener is deaf. Are names and drawings useful?”
At that time, he took a manuscript out of his saddlebag.
He said, “Take this and read it well, open its locks and symbols and its secret doors. Travel with it to the first creation through its moons, lights and secrets to reach the settlement of your last journey where you’ll find the inn is…!”
Then he bade me a farewell and went away. When I looked, I did not find anyone, so I went in a hurry, filled with breaths of the angels, walking in a long journey, tracing steps that no one had trod except me.