Nile of Tears

The Nile that divided his land also united it, he believed. If it were possible he would make his life a bridge between north and south. Perhaps blood, his own included, would continue to flow beneath this bridge before finally the clear water of peace and life would wash the blood and bloodstain away. There would be celebration at the confluence of cross and crescent as at the marriage of the White Nile and the Blue Nile. He carried a simple message: the story of a rock that had become a shrine and site of a contest for religious space and gods.

The holy man settled under the shelter of an acacia tree to spend the night. He spread a battered old rug on the gravel ground and, facing Mecca, knelt on it and did salat. A strict observer of the tenets of his religion, he prayed, dutifully, five times a day. He sat cross-legged on the rug after prayer. He deferred the gratification of his thirst and hunger, a discipline his unusual asceticism had taught him. It had taught him to defer the gratification of thousands of hungers, tens of thousands of thirsts. He would endure until he reached the remote village, close to the border with the South, in this dry and sparsely populated part of his country. He was nearing the end of his journey.

He was a tall man, lean and very dark, with a long-flowing white beard. Age had wrung his smooth skin into wrinkles. His head was wrapped in a white turban and he wore a flowing white jelabiyah. His sandals of worn brown leather protruded from under the robe. His deep penetrating eyes, filled with piety, appreciated his surroundings, splashed scarlet, everywhere, with sunset. There was serenity all around. He held his Koran close to his heart and recited, softly to himself, suras he had been taught to memorize since the time when his mind was still in its infancy.

With the rebirth of day, God willing, he would proceed on his journey. All around him the open countryside of dry grass, sparse acacia trees and naked rocks, was quiet and empty. He lived for solitude like this. Here, one could sense the presence of Allah, the sacredness of life all around, the all-pervading peace. A flock of doves alighted and began pecking at tiny pebbles and seeds on the ground beside him, unperturbed by his statuesque presence. His eyes pierced the far horizon to the north. A violent cloud of sunset-colored dust intruded. It advanced like a menace. The ascetic understood then that the peace and quiet of the world of solitude he was enjoying here was over. Solitude, peace and quiet never last. All his life they never lasted. Even when he went out into the desert, someone or something would intrude. Chaos is inescapable. It is part of the human condition. It requires little effort to create and maintain. Order is something that requires constant thriving to attain, to maintain, and to perfect. The thriving for order is the most difficult of jihads.

His grandfather had been correct: True solitude is elusive. He had made this statement in the abandoned mosque that had once been a monastery that had once been a temple that had once been a shrine that had once been a rock. The old man had used its history to educate the boy about himself.

His motherís death had guaranteed his birth. It was either that she lived or he died. She chose life for him, death for herself. Her life drained away in unstoppable bleeding, it was consumed by her pain. An unborn child lay crossways in her young womb. An incompetent mid-wifeís crude caesarian. She breathed her last as he breathed his first lungful of life. She uttered her last sigh, a farewell, as he delivered his first scream, an announcement of arrival, an assertion of existence. His father had been present. In spirit. He had been killed earlier, without knowledge of the conception, in a quarrel with Beja tribesmen over cattle. His grandmothers had both joined the ancestors a long time ago. It was in his paternal grandfatherís broad palms he had been placed, screaming and kicking, covered in blood and mucus. His grandfather had cradled him as the land itself had cradled civilizations that succeeded one another like fathers succeed sons, daughters succeed mothers, kings succeed kings, seed succeed seed.

The old man had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. He had made pilgrimages to other places, to other times, to his own inner being. He, unlike most others, had not invented any genealogy that traced his origins to the sands of Arabia, to Mecca or Medina, to the Prophet. From the branch from which they hung like seeded fruits on the tree of indigenous ancestry they had traced together origins going back a thousand years and generations to roots sunk deep into the land, adventitious roots nurtured by the dark Nile in its infancy. Their people had ruled empires, built pyramids and sat on their own thrones at Yam, Wawat, Napata and Meroe and the thrones of the Pharaohs at Thebes and Memphis. What remained of their drowned land abounded in monuments and memories that attested to this glorious past. It was a past of which the learned old man was proud and sought to preserve. That was why he protested vehemently when a decision was taken to construct the Aswan high dam. He protested in vain. Whole communities were relocated, monuments were cut out of the rocks and moved to higher ground, and the rising tears of a dammed Nile, mourning the loss of ages drowned whole villages.

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January 15th, 2004 by