بخش 31

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بخش 31

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Desert Rose the Harlot

KONYA, OCTOBER 17, 1244

Breathless, I ran and ran along the narrow alley, unable to look back. My lungs burning, my chest pounding, when I finally reached the busy bazaar, I dodged behind a wall, almost collapsing. Only then could I muster the courage to look behind me. To my great surprise and relief, there was only one person following me: Sesame. He stopped beside me, out of breath, his hands dangling limply at his sides, his expression bewildered and vexed, unable to comprehend why all of a sudden I had started running like crazy through the streets of Konya.

Everything had happened so fast that it was only in the bazaar that I could put the pieces together. One minute I was sitting in the mosque, absorbed in the sermon, drinking in Rumi’s pearls of wisdom. In my trance I failed to notice that the lad next to me had accidentally stepped on the ends of the scarf covering my face. Before I knew it, the scarf came loose and my turban slid aside, exposing my face and a bit of my hair. I fixed the scarf swiftly and continued listening to Rumi, confident that nobody had noticed anything. But when I raised my eyes again, I saw a young man in the front row looking at me intently. Square face, lazy eye, sharp nose, sneering mouth. I recognized him. He was Baybars.

Baybars was one of those pesky customers none of the girls in the brothel wanted to sleep with. Some men have a way of wanting to sleep with prostitutes and yet at the same time insulting them. He was such a man. Always cracking lewd jokes, he had a terrible temper. Once he beat a girl so badly that even the boss, who loved money more than anything, had to ask him to leave and never come back. But he kept returning. At least for a few more months. Then, for some reason unbeknownst to me, he stopped visiting the brothel, and we didn’t hear from him again. Now there he was, sitting in the front row, having grown a full beard like a devout man but still with the same fierce sparkle in his eyes.

I averted my gaze. But it was too late. He had recognized me.

Baybars whispered something to the man next to him, and then the two of them turned around and stared at me. Next they pointed me out to someone else, and one after another all the men in that row stared in my direction. I felt my face blush and my heart race, but I couldn’t budge. Instead I clung to the childish hope that if I stayed still and closed my eyes, the darkness would engulf us all, leaving nothing to worry about.

When I dared to open my eyes again, Baybars was pushing his way through the crowd toward me. I made a dash for the door, but it was impossible to escape, surrounded as I was by a thick sea of people. In a flash Baybars had reached me, so menacingly close I could smell his breath. Grabbing me by the arm, he said between clenched teeth, “What is a harlot doing here? Don’t you have any shame?” “Please … please, let me go,” I stammered, but I don’t think he even heard me.

His friends joined him. Tough, scary, confident, disdainful fellows, reeking of anger and vinegar, raining insults on me. Everyone around turned to see what the commotion was about, and a few people tsk-tsked disapprovingly, but nobody intervened. My body as listless as a lump of dough, I meekly let them push me toward the exit. Once we reached the street, I hoped, Sesame would come to my aid, and if worst came to worst, I would run away. But no sooner had we stepped into the street than the men grew more belligerent and aggressive. I realized in horror that in the mosque, out of respect for the preacher and the community, they had been careful not to raise their voices or shove me around, but outside on the street there was nothing to stop them.

I had been through harder things in my life, and yet I doubt if I had ever felt so dejected before. After years of hesitation, today I had taken a step toward God, and how had He responded? By kicking me out of His house!

“I should never have gone there,” I said to Sesame, my voice cracking like thin ice. “They’re right, you know. A harlot has no place in a mosque or a church or in any of His houses.”

“Don’t say that!”

When I turned around to see who had said this, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was him, the wandering hairless dervish. Sesame broke into a wide smile, delighted to see him again. I lurched forward to kiss his hands, but he stopped me midway. “Please don’t.” “But how can I thank you? I owe you so much,” I beseeched.

He shrugged and looked uninterested. “You owe me nothing,” he said. “We are indebted to no other than Him.”

He introduced himself as Shams of Tabriz and then said the strangest thing ever: “Some people start life with a perfectly glowing aura but then lose color and fade. You seem to be one of them. Once your aura was whiter than lilies with specks of yellow and pink, but it faded over time. Now it is a pale brown. Don’t you miss your original colors? Wouldn’t you like to unite with your essence?” I looked at him, feeling utterly lost in his words.

“Your aura has lost its shine because all these years you have convinced yourself that you are dirty inside and out.”

“I am dirty,” I said, biting my lip. “Don’t you know what I do for a living?”

“Allow me to tell you a story,” Shams said. And this is what he told me:

One day a prostitute passed by a street dog. The animal was panting under the hot sun, thirsty and helpless. The prostitute immediately took off her shoe and filled it with water from the nearest well for the dog. Then she went on her way. The next day she ran into a Sufi who was a man of great wisdom. As soon as he saw her, he kissed her hands. She was shocked. But he told her that her kindness toward the dog had been so genuine that all her sins had been pardoned there and then.

I understood what Shams of Tabriz was trying to tell me, but something inside me refused to believe him. So I said, “Let me assure you, even if I fed all the dogs in Konya, it wouldn’t be enough for my redemption.”

“You cannot know that; only God can. Besides, what makes you think any of those men who pushed you out of the mosque today are closer to God?”

“Even if they are not closer to God,” I replied, unconvinced, “who will tell them that? Will you?”

But the dervish shook his head. “No, that’s not the way the system works. It is you who needs to tell it to them.”

“Do you think they would listen to me? Those men hate me.”

“They will listen,” he said determinedly. “Because there is no such thing as ‘them,’ just as there is no ‘I.’ All you need to do is keep in mind how everything and everyone in this universe is interconnected. We are not hundreds and thousands of different beings. We are all One.” I waited for him to explain, but instead he continued: “It’s one of the forty rules. If you want to change the way others treat you, you should first change the way you treat yourself. Unless you learn to love yourself, fully and sincerely, there is no way you can be loved. Once you achieve that stage, however, be thankful for every thorn that others might throw at you. It is a sign that you will soon be showered in roses.” He paused briefly and then added, “How can you blame others for disrespecting you when you think of yourself as unworthy of respect?” I stood there unable to say a word as I felt my grip on what was real slip away. I thought about all the men I had slept with—the way they smelled, the way their callused hands felt, the way they cried when they came.… I had seen nice boys turn into monsters and monsters turn into nice boys. Once I had a customer who had the habit of spitting on prostitutes while he had s@x with them. “Dirty,” he would say as he spit into my mouth and all over my face. “You dirty whore.” And here was this dervish telling me I was cleaner than fresh springwater. It felt like a tasteless joke, but when I forced myself to laugh, the sound didn’t pass through my throat, and I ended up suppressing a sob.

“The past is a whirlpool. If you let it dominate your present moment, it will suck you in,” said Shams as if he had read my thoughts. “Time is just an illusion. What you need is to live this very moment. That is all that matters.” Upon saying that, he took out a silk handkerchief from the inside pocket of his robe. “Keep it,” he said. “A good man in Baghdad gave it to me, but you need it more than I do. It will remind you that your heart is pure and that you bear God within you.” With that, the dervish grabbed his staff and stood up, ready to go. “Just walk out of that brothel.”

“Where? How? I have no place to go.”

“That’s not a problem,” Shams said, his eyes gleaming. “Fret not where the road will take you. Instead concentrate on the first step. That’s the hardest part and that’s what you are responsible for. Once you take that step let everything do what it naturally does and the rest will follow. Do not go with the flow. Be the flow.” I nodded. I didn’t need to ask in order to understand that this, too, was one of the rules.

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