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Tag: Marrakesh

5
June 20, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

White

One morning, long ago now, my father came home and looked white, as if he had seen a ghost. He sat in his study in his favourite chair, staring into space. We asked our mother what had happened. ”He’s had a little shock,’ she said. ‘It’s best to leave him alone.’

A day passed and my father sat there, staring, hardly moving at all.

On the second day, I couldn’t stand the suspense an longer. So I asked him, straight up, what was the matter. He tried to smile. It was one of those forced smiles of reassurance, that leads to even more  worry because it’s so strained.
‘I will tell you, Tahir Jan,’ he said… ‘I will tell you a story. And this time it is true.’
So I sat down beside him, a log fire orange and yellow in the hearth. And I waited. The silence continued for a few minutes, and I half wondered if he had forgotten the promise of a tale, a true one. Then, when I had almost given up hope, he wove his long fingers together, pressed the knuckles to his chin, and began.
‘On the morning of my birth a fortune teller was brought to room where my mother had just delivered. It was in Simla, in the Himalaya mountains, because I was born during a hunting expedition as you know. My mother had me cradled in a soft blanket, a touche, made from the finest hair from the chin of mountain goats. Her face was glazed with joy at setting eyes on her first son. Standing tall and proud beside the bed, my father escorted the diviner in, asked him to sit and, when he was ready, to peer into the future.
‘The fortune teller crouched low on a stool at the corner of the bed. He was very old, extremely wizened, his face like an elephant’s back. He was almost blind. But everyone knew he possessed a clear and untrammeled sight of another kind. Tea was brought and pleasantries exchanged. My mother unfurled the corner of the blanket so that the mystic could see the face of the infant.
‘A little time slipped by. Then, only when he was quite ready, the seer held the sides of his wrinkled face, and journeyed into another plane. His eyes appeared to swell with joy, then with tears. My parents, watching his expression as it changed, waited patiently for the divination.
‘An hour or more passed. Then, an only then, the teller recounted what he had seen. “Your son,”he said, “this little boy you have given the fine name Sayed Idries, will grow up to be a very famous man. He will be a man of his age, a man whose name is known in every home and every teahouse, a man respected and valued for his great wisdom, but…”
‘The seer paused. My parents leant forward. ‘But…?’ they said both at once. ‘But what?’ 
‘”But something unpleasant, something grim, will hang above his life, a terrible danger dangling by a thread. It will always be there, waiting for the moment when his guard is let down. And then it will strike.”
‘My father enquired the nature of this malediction. The diviner looked at him, his clouded vision wavering. “I will tell you,” he said. “I prophesize here and now, at the first light of this infant’s life, that he will meet his demise through drowning. I cannot tell you when it shall happen, because that depends on circumstance, but I can state with the utmost confidence that he will drown. Therefore, I caution you to take appropriate action to safeguard against this curse.”
‘A little more time passed and the mystic was ushered out, thanked profusely, and rewarded for his foresight. When he was gone, the first actions were taken to prevent me from meeting my untimely death. The bathtub was immediately taken away and broken into pieces so that my head might never be forced beneath its waterline. The servants were instructed never, on any account, to put the infant boy in a position of danger when near water.
‘Time passed, and I grew into childhood. In that time, I was not ever permitted to take a bath, only the briefest of showers. And, I was never taught to swim, never permitted to go anywhere near water… oceans, seas, lakes or streams. When my friends went to play in the icy mountain rivers, I was kept back, clutched to my mother’s chest.
‘As the years passed, I grew used to my life shrouded from water, the most natural of substances. I rarely thought of it, that I was ignorant of anything nautical. With time, I even forgot the premonition that had been so drummed into me as a small child — that I would drown.
‘Decades rolled forward. My parents passed away and I became a father of my own, to you three children. My life was arranged around habit, the habit of childhood, designed to prevent an untimely death through drowning. I have never taken a bath, nor have I leapt into a river, and have rarely been close to the sea. It is not that I have a fear of water, rather a mistrust of it, for I know that it is waiting, waiting to end my life.’
‘But, Baba, why did you come back home so fearful,’ I asked.
My father moved his vision from the flames to my face.
‘Because, Tahir Jan, as you know I have a heart condition. My heart is weak and, in its weakened state I have to visit a specialist from time to time. He does tests, examines me, and makes a diagnosis for my future. Well, I met him yesterday. He asked me to remove my shirt, which I did, and he put the stethoscope to my chest. I breathed slowly in and out, in and out. When I had done so several times, he told me to put my shirt on. I did so. He took off his reading glasses, and looked at me hard, the corners of his mouth raised ever so slightly in a faint smile.’
‘What did he say?’
‘He said to me: “The trouble with you Mr. Shah is that your lungs are slowly filling with water… and you are drowning.”‘
TS
0
June 15, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

Sunday: Beginning and end

Only someone who has tasted loneliness can fully understand the mesmerising joy of crowds. A thousand feet walking in every direction, faces smiling, grinning, scowling, or blank of any expression, bodies of all shapes and sizes, the scent of perfume and perspiration.

After my teenage travels through Africa — especially the vast empty Great Rift in the continent’s east — I took refuge in Japan, and found pleasure in the press of commuters at Ikebukuro Station on a Friday night. It was like a powder keg in those subterranean tunnels, the sound of birdsong blaring through speakers, a psychologist’s solution for keeping crazed minds calm.

There were so many people, a streamlined mass — black briefcases and rubber-soled shoes, striped neckties and poly-wool suits. I used to wade into the middle of the frenzied rush, splay my feet wide and bend my knees to be rooted to the spot, and enjoy the surge of life all around. There was no feeling on earth like it — a sense of invisibility — while being buffeted by humanity.
I have spent almost twenty years searching for the perfect crowd and have been sucked down in them all over the urban world: in Rio de Janeiro and New York, in Lima, London, Calcutta, Cairo and Rome. There’s something almost supernatural about a good crowd: something complex, random, dynamic.
Think of it — our rural ancestors could never have understood the raw energy of ten thousand, or fifty thousand people, all packed into a tight space. I can hear you cursing — ‘Well, lucky them!’ That’s wrong. They missed out. Because there’s something intensely human about a good crowd, an experience which reminds us of who and what we are.
Of course, when you have struggled across Mumbai’s Victiora Terminus at dusk, you know you have found it — the greatest crowd on the planet. For me it was like the moment when a surfer has tracked down the most sublime wave: the perfect swell. There was a sense of silence at the heart, a terror beyond all terrors and, at the same time, satisfaction like nothing I had ever experienced.
Half the world was right there, touching me, brushing past. There were beggars and commuters, dabawallas, salesmen, students, ladies in sweeping saris, fortune-tellers and godmen, eunuchs and pickpockets, and a seething blurred mass of legs and arms, and dark glistening hair, satchels and nylon socks.
But then, the other day, I found myself in Jma al Fna, the vast central square in Marrakech. It’s name translates as ‘the Place of Execution’, and hints that it was once far more than place de touristes. The sun went down and the air was touched by the muezzin’s call. Then, as if arranged by an invisible conductor, hundreds of stall keepers set up their food stands. Each one was illuminated by a hurricane lamp, eerie platinum light radiating out with the smoke and the chaotic sound of feet.
I stood there, right in the middle of the square, smoke racing,  swirling, twisting, mixing with the incandescent light. There were so many people squeezed in that I felt myself overcome by claustrophobia for the first time. I choked, my eyes wide with fear. Forget Mumbai, I thought to myself, this crowd may be smaller, but there’s something ancient about it, something so powerful as to defy description.
You are probably tied down in life, caught in a spider’s web of bills, chores and responsibility. If there was any way you could break free, I’d counsel you to make a beeline for that square. Spend the afternoon under the shade of a nearby cafe. Then, as the sunlight ebbs away, venture out. Wade into the ocean of people, and prepare yourself for the greatest show on earth.
TS
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