Seven years have now passed into the mists of time since I first set foot in what I affectionately termed Pathan Country in an article I wrote at the turn of the millennium, a tribal area evocative of the wild, lawless region in the far North of Pakistan, traditionally called the North West Frontier Province. My first trip began four days into the new millennium at a time when there was a recent plane high-jacking in nearby Afghanistan that made headline news across the globe, a time also when the world had just passed through the well anticipated IT crisis by avoiding the much heralded computer meltdown that seems fabricated and silly now in retrospect, as if the world had nothing else to worry about than the world’s computers going haywire. When people asked where I was going during a busy time approaching the end of a long Spring semester at the university where I work in the United Arab Emirates, I jokingly told them Osama bin Laden country since there is rampant speculation the most famous arch terrorist of the century lies tucked away in the vast spread of rugged, inaccessible mountains that form the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As I climbed out of the hot sun into a taxi on my way to the airport in Abu Dhabi for the three hour flight into Peshawar, I felt a little on edge. There has been a rash of recent bombings in both Karachi and Peshawar due to sectarian violence and the politics of the country had been recently volatile at best and downright chaotic at worst, a kind of cauldron of sectarian violence and political turmoil that the average Westerner has very little experience with, and I was certainly no exception. From my perch as a university professor in a Western-style university in the Gulf region, I had enjoyed an era of unlimited prosperity and safety in the country, as thought resting in the eye of some infernal storm with the endless war being waged in Iraq and nuclear storm clouds hovering over Iran not far away and yet far enough for the horizon of my daily routine to resemble the strife of another planet, something to turn on during the evening news as a token gesture to the realities of the world.
Not surprisingly, the taxi driver was himself a Pathan as are all the taxi drivers in Abu Dhabi. True to my expectation, he immediately asked me in rudimentary Arabic if I was going to “my country” and from his broad smile and eager face, he had no reason to believe that I wasn’t heading home to America. This seemed to bring joy to his heart, judging from his animation and readiness to talk to this foreign devil. I knew otherwise, however, thinking that I didn’t want to shock or disappoint him; but that I was heading to his home inside the heart of Pathan country. He would undoubtedly find it hard to believe that I was going to Peshawar, sitting there next to him in my crisp white shirt and summer woolen slacks looking every bit the American, clutching a soft leather briefcase between my knees with my ticket, passport and money, the three essentials of any trip. “No I am not going to my country,” I replied in Arabic in a deadpan tone, and then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, I told him I was flying to Peshawar. He looked at me aghast. “Where are you from,” I asked innocently, knowing full well that he came from Peshawar or some nearby village like all the rest of the Pathan taxi drivers in Abu Dhabi. He appeared to have been struck by a stun-gun and he drove the rest of the way in silence until we approached the apron of the airport when I advised him to head toward Terminal Two, “the flight to Yemen and Pakistan fly out of the cargo terminal,” I ventured; but he already knew, having used the terminal himself many times on the way to his country.
It reminded me of my experience at the Pakistani Embassy when I went to get the visa. I was fully expecting to get a multiple entry visa for a reason that will soon become clear. When I told this to the clerk who was filling out my application form on the computer in a small crowded office peopled with every manner and shape of turbaned tribesmen, he immediately stopped my plans of multiple entry short by telling me that I could only have a single entry visa. “But I will be flying over to Peshawar about once a month, “I implored, but his flat, disinterested face immediately told me that I was speaking to the wrong person. “I need to see the First Secretary,” I demanded with a polite air of determination. “Of course, Mr. Faisal, outside and in the main embassy building, second floor”. After passing through a battery of security and donning my security pass on my shirt pocket complementing my tie-clip with its officiality, I made my way upstairs wondering whether it was the American second floor or the European second floor. As it happened, it was the Pakistani second floor beyond a mezzanine and first floor. I knocked on the closed door and made my entrance to encounter the first secretary Mr. Faisal standing at his desk talking with an aide. He immediately deferred to my presence and after shaking my hand invited me to sit down. I hesitated for a second, my thoughts roaming through a complicated maze of explanations and reluctantly coming to the fore to make sense of what I needed to tell him. For one panicky moment, it all seemed too implausible to articulate in real words the unique experience of my becoming the grandfather of a family of eight, including six children, mother and father, a story with no past and no future, only an inner truth that could bear no verbal explanation without destroying its reality, like trying to explain the quantum enigma or the presence of eternity within the reality of time. Its implausibility simply couldn’t be reconciled with convincing ease.
Nevertheless, I took leave of this shore of incertitude and made my way through the delicacies of my unexpected tale; it seemed incredible even to me as I heard myself begin to recount the story of an unlikely and unexpected encounter that turned into a true friendship, while the first secretary listened to my narrative with attention and interest. I had met this Pathan tribesman over fifteen years ago one Friday in the mosque after what the Muslims call the Juma Prayer, the prayer of congregation that takes place every Friday noontime with a brief sermon by the imam followed by the simple Islamic prayer ritual. This particular prayer is a crowded affair with practitioners spilling out onto mats in the courtyard under the stark mid-day desert sun, a testament perhaps to the intensity that the average Muslims still feel for their religion in this post-modern age of secularism and material progress. When the prayer is finished, people linger around for a while socializing, performing the extra Sunnah prayers and alternatively sitting cross-legged against a pillar to read the Quran.
On one such afternoon as I sat reading the Quran, a dark shadow crossed the page of my moshaf forcing me to look up at the unexpected intrusion. A virtual mountain man towered over me, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested; he leaned down with a benevolent smile spread across his face, offering me a great gorilla paw of a hand to shake. I had grown accustomed to people greeting me in and around the mosque; the Muslims feel great happiness when they learn that someone has converted to Islam, especially a Westerner such as myself. Not only does it open their hearts to a natural feeling of communion and camaraderie; but it also strengthens their own faith in a kind of reverse way, since Arabs generally respect the intelligence, discipline and technical know-how of Europeans and Americans. A Westerner’s free willing entry into the true spirit of Islam gives them pause and always recalls to their mind the traditional saying (hadith) of the Prophet Mohammed that a Muslim convert has the sins of their past wiped away and will be entitled to enter the paradise without question.
I sensed immediately that this was no casual encounter and no common man; but rather an occasion that happens rarely in a lifetime and has the capacity to reverse tides and change destiny. There was a light on his face that was impossible to ignore, as if someone has turned on a lamp inside his head. The darkly bearded man looked down upon me with a full-rounded face that was as sweet and honest as the day is long; his smile shone out of him like sunlight falling on trees. Squatting down with ease next to me with his feet flat on the ground, he asked where I was from, always the first question amid such encounters. When I told him America, he clapped his hands irreverently and topped onto his backside and back like a playful gorilla . “I am very happy with this news,” he beamed with an earnest pleasure that was intoxicating, if not infectious, once he had set himself aright. He raised his hands in front of himself as a gesture of formal leave-taking, then put his right hand over his heart, saying: “I not want to be bother you reading Quran,” and with the hint of a wink and a “ma salama”, he disappeared silently among the pillars of the mosque.
We met up again on numerous Fridays and soon enough he invited me back to a small villa he shared with his two brothers and a number of other close relatives from his native village in Pakistan, Tarkha by name, the very place that I was now on my way to visit once again, deep in the hilly countryside of the North West Frontier Province. The First Secretary of the Pakistani Embassy seemed to listen to me with skeptical interest as I related the development of a very long relationship that started many years ago in that mosque and that has now grown to include his fully extended family of six children, all of whom considered me as their grandfather and affectionately called me Baba, the Pashtu term of affection for grandfather. Mr.Faisal eventually began to warm to this unique situation, an American sitting in his office, a Muslim convert for some 35 years now, a story as fantastic as it was improbable of the initial friendship and now familiar love of the Pathan family who had taken in this stray expatriot as one of their own. Could the incredible be more believable when it seems too farfetched to be false, containing truths that one finds encaptured in fiction that can hardly bear the light of reality in fact.
At first, I was slow to recognize the rarity of his unique Pathan mentality and the manifestation of his simple and uncorrupted heart. I too like many others allowed myself to be mislead by his awesome size, shape and bearing, for all appearances, he seemed to be a rough cut and a person of formidable bearing. One of the inevitable effects of living in the modern world is that we have hardened ourselves against the intrusion from the outside world of anything that could invade the serenity of our routines and upset the narrow setting of our conscious minds. In our initial encounter, the hurly-burly Farmana approached me with the openness and spontaneity of a child, not as if we were perfect strangers – for a child everything is strange but harbors a latent familiarity waiting to be discovered – but rather as if we were long lost friends who had suddenly been reunited after a span of decades. Who was this strange fellow befriending me with an unrelenting fusillade of expectation and candor, as if I had everything he could ever want and as his friend I would gladly give it to him because that is how he understood the world and that is how he approached the people he encountered. I mistook his child-like spontaneity and seeming innocence for the clever ploy of a con man moving in on silent wings over his prey, ready to gather in his claws the unsuspecting waif. I had not been too long in the world, but too long in the modern world if you will, where a person quickly learns to hold him or herself in reserve, to guard against the unwanted encounter and the unpredictable stranger as an instinctive means of protection against the unexpected nature and contingencies in life.
Over time, I was to learn that his inner nature was so rare and unique and his personality was so natural and true to itself that I could not fail to be drawn to him, especially in an age such as we live in today when the majority of individuals are self-serving, superficial, and inaccessible on some deeper and true r level beyond the superficial mask that most people present to the world. He said what he meant and meant what he said. He fulfilled his promises and kept his appointments. He gave the broad field of the traditional virtues their name back, including generosity, truthfulness, faithfulness and a natural inborn dignity, being incapable of lying, cheating, or talking about others behind their backs. He taught me the meaning of the Quranic verse: “Allah is with you wherever you are.” He was devoted to his family, his village friends and his tribe in that order. He accepted what life offered to him and he never complained. All of this set him apart from the standard of modern individuals and made him an individual worthy of note. Even his physical statue seemed to take note of his singularity and uniqueness, for we should not fail to mention that he was in his physical presence a giant of a man.
In my initial association with him, I came to learn what it meant to be a giant among men. We don’t mean to imply necessarily some exaggerated physical amplitude that we read about in childhood fairytales in the form of the elusive giant who walks through the forest pulling up trees by their roots, but a kind of traditional man cast from the mold of the universal man who appears larger than life, partly because he was larger than the average man, his noble bearing and vertical stance heightened by such traditional clothing as a turban and flowing caftan, and partly because he is larger than life and in so being has taken on the physical presence of a giant as the outward projection of an inner magnitude. That he was also an unsuspecting giant who did not know his own size only accentuated the endearing contrast between his physical prowess and the boundless inner child-like presence that heightened the pure and uncorrupted quality of his personal nature.
I had moved around a lot in my life and could measure the progression of my years by the places I have lived in. I used to smartly boast that I have lived and worked in three continents, 9 countries and 19 different institutions of higher learning, but I don’t do so anymore, not since the day I met my Pathan friend Farmana, through whose association over time I came to know the ultimate wisdom, namely that in truth one doesn’t know very much at all and if somehow you have acquired some wisdom, you let it shine through your actions and your behavior and not through the proud boasting that is the sugar coating of empty words. Over the years, I had encountered every size, shape, color, personality and temperament of individuals from innumerable backgrounds and cultures, enough to fill the universal book of man with all the mug shots of a disturbed and vainglorious humanity. In addition, I had been a teacher all my life. I have considered myself what is called a natural-born pedagogue, and countless students have sat, figuratively speaking, at my feet over the fleeting years to learn the message of the day, its significance and its application. I prided myself on the fact that I have taught much more than the subject at hand, namely English in all its facets of proficiency and skills. I have attempted to guide my students, set the example, and through whatever means available to my limited mentality and experience, to instill in them the very best of myself, for whatever that might be worth.
Then I met this unsuspecting giant and learned how very little I actually knew about the key elements that form an accurate self-image of man and actually constitute the knowledge of how to live a good life. For once, I had the instinctive intelligence to become the ear rather than the voice, the lantern and not the light, as he taught me without knowing that he did, without effort, unconsciously and indirectly, through his simple words, his integral actions and his very physical bearing, the meaning of a life and the meaning of his life. Was he a philosopher, a theologian, a purveyor of words and ideas beyond the normal course of a man? Far from it. Was he a lama, a sheikh, a guru or a saint cast into the magnificent corporeal form of a man under the halo of sanctity and the product of a rarefied upbringing that had singled him out as a man among men? The answer is an unqualified no. He was a son among four sons, orphaned by his father when he was six and left to help his brothers support their mother and family as he walked barefoot the byways of his village with his donkey and its load of grasses.
The years passed by and during this time I got to know him better than perhaps anyone else in my life. I came to learn that in his presence I experienced a rare and unique soul without pretension or guile and that indeed he was a unique individual among the people of our time. In fact, he was the living representative of the saying of Christ that unless you become like little children you cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven. He was, in every vital respect, like a child, with his simple innocence, his unpretentious quality, the spontaneous joy that accompanied the simplest of his pleasures. In children, these reactions are everyday occurrences of an uncorrupt and in some way inexperienced soul in which the primordial aura of beginnings has not yet dimmed and the sweet remembrance of first origins keeps alive the true identity of our inner self. In this unsuspecting giant, they were a sign of another world, a higher dimension and an alternative reality that for him served as his beacon of light whose luminescence remembered the one God of Islam as the only true reality worth living for.
He married several years after I met him and return thereafter once a year to his ancestral village to spend time with his young wife Shaista, a childhood sweetheart who was an infant when he himself came of age, putting nearly 14 years between them. His first two children were girls whom he named Najma and Zohra. By the time I made my first visit to his village at the turn of the millennium, Najma was several years old and Zohra was an infant in arms. As she began to grow older, Najma hardly knew her father when he returned home for his once yearly visit; she preferred the arms of his brother or father-in-law and this slight touched deeply upon his soul. Zohra befriended her father upon his return and in the true spirit of all infants, she was ready to extend her love at the slightest provocation. Finally, about six years into the marriage, there was another child on the way; this time, Farman had returned to his village because he was between assignments in his work.
One night as they lay sleeping, Shaista shook her bear-like husband awake and whispered in his ear that she was ready. Farman jumped up and ran to awaken his brothers who all rushed into the village to get a Nissan pickup they had arranged in anticipation of the impending birth. The three brothers climbed into the front cab; the three women, including Farman’s mother who was an experienced wet-nurse in her own right, his sister and the belabored Shaista, breathing heavily, climbed into the open-ended rear of the pickup truck. It was a seasonally clear night in early October. The moon and stars shown down their benevolent pale light on this expectant party; there was a chill dampness in the air and a creeping fog along the edges of the dirt road lending an uneasy atmosphere to the proceedings. The women were well fortified with woolen shawls and the heavy chador draped over their heads like a shroud. The brothers set off through the village and beyond its fringe on the way to the hospital in Peshawar about 45 minutes away. They were but a few miles outside the village under the blackness of the brisk night sky when there was a tap on the rear window of the cab. “Turn around,” Farman’s old mother cried out from outside the cab. He maneuvered his way around the narrow pathway and immediately headed back without a word. Only a few minutes went by when he heard another tap on the window. “Pull over now,” his mother shouted with authority, and Farman immediately brought the pickup to a halt by the side of the road. He later told me that he could hear the croaking of frogs in the distance breaking open the eerie silence of the night, interrupted only by the heavy breathing and muffled cries of his wife beyond the enclosed cab. The brothers sat in silence and resignation, when suddenly there was another tap on the rearview window. “My son,” his mother intoned majestically. “You have a son. Allah be praised you, have a boy.” Whereupon they returned to the village and went back to their ancestral home with the new addition to their family.
When Farman returned to the Emirates and told me the story, I felt in awe at the unassuming manner in which he related the story to me, as if it were an everyday occurrence. I then realized that it was time for him to bring his family to live with him in the Emirates, so long as he had work there and could sustain them in a suitable manner. When his son Wajahat turned six months old, they bundled him up with the other two girls and Shaista took herself and the three children to this strange, new country, leaving her village for the first time, and traveling beyond the borders of her country across vast mountains and oceans to reach her new abode with her husband in the United Arab Emirates. By the time Wajahat could crawl over to my legs and stand up with the support of my knees, he has fallen in love with me. When I arrived for the weekend, he ran in ecstasy to my feet to pull off my shoes and socks and when I left, he waved good-bye and cried as he sat in the crook of his father’s arms. Mariam was soon to follow, dark-haired and dark-eyed. Shaista wrapped her up for the first six months as she had done with the other children so that she would not flail about unnecessarily in her infancy. When she was about 8 months old, she turned to look at me while in her mother’s arms and reached out to me to be held. From then on, she was my girl and was completely taken with me. When I arrived, she clung to me; she sat in my lap all through the weekend, and when I left at the end of the weekend, I did so when she was taking her afternoon nap to spare her the heart-rending sobs at my departure.
By the time of Shaista’s next pregnancy not a year and a half later, no one said anything out loud because one accepts the will of Allah; but there were secret, unspoken aspirations for another boy, since the family already had three girls and poor Wajahat was sorely outnumbered. Sure enough, my Pathan friend called me at 3:00 in the morning one Friday to announce the arrival of Raouf, making the 25th of August forevermore a day of remembrance for the family. He too fell in love with Baba, the Pashtu word of grandfather. It was the first word to emerge from his lips with distinction and he took to marching around the room and pulling down my photograph from the bookcase, calling out Baba, Baba all day long. When I arrived for the weekend, he joined the rest of the army under the shade of the mango tree waiting for Baba and when my car emerged from around the corner, his little feet danced in the dust, his excitement rushing headlong through all his extremities in a fit of joy. And when I left for home at the end of the weekend, he climbed into the arms of his mountain man of a father to see me off, crying inconsolably as if it were the end of the world and not just the end of his world.
Unbeknownst to myself and my own invention, I now knew that I had my own adopted family, including mother, father and six children, if you include little Laylah who arrived a few months ago and is still wrapped up in swaddling clothes and hasn’t recognized her Baba yet. A confirmed bachelor all my life, I had not sought out the joys of domesticity for a number of reasons, not the least of which being an inborn disposition for privacy and solitude that precluded my getting married and making a solemn commitment that true marriage requires. However, knowing now what I know and having responded to the reality that presented itself, I am grateful that this beloved family had quietly and without fanfare crept into my life and become a part of my world before I had a chance to protest. A gift is given to you and you cannot decline its offering without betraying something fundamental in yourself, not to mention the one who is giving. It is a gift of love and devotion and faithfulness that clears the air and clarifies the day, that brings the light of dawn and the darkness of twilight together into a single unity by the reality of this frank outpouring of emotion that is raw, pure and unqualified. I can hear the voices of the children now even when they are not there and they come and go within my mind without asking for permission, freely and happily, bringing with them their own happiness and well being into my waking consciousness with their natural grace. They are there and they are gone, but I am among them even when I am alone. “I could stay among them,” I think to myself. “Yes, I could stay with them forever and watch them grow. Even as I grow old or perhaps because I grow old.” Who could turn away from such a gift and not feel regret at its passing away. It is the thought of going on without them that would turn my life into an unexpected trial that might be too much to bear.
Of course, I didn’t extemporize to this extent the qualities of my friend and what his family meant to me to the First Secretary of the Pakistani Embassy, although admittedly I tried to convey the essence of this unique, eternal friendship as the credible foundation for my wanting to visit them in Pakistan. Some ideas cannot bear the harsh reality of being spoken out loud, they express a knowledge so fragile and an emotion so raw that sending their vibration into the air could shatter the serenity and purity of its meaning and significance. Yet, there are ideas and experiences that lie in waiting to shed of their essence when it is needed, to be seen and listened to in the form of people, places and the natural beauties in the things that surround us and are absorbed into our beings as the essential quality of their transcending truth. The significance of people, places, and things suddenly make themselves known on a day as unexpected as a summer storm. You see a shadow along the path, hear the sound of the sea in a seashell, feel the breath of wings on your neck, or through a lingering smell a fragment of memory enkindles a spark within you heart and you remember . . . what is it precisely, but the spirit of the giant who did not know his size that lies sequestered as a promise within each of us, a presence that you know is there but cannot see and do not always remember, even if you wish to take hold of it and never let go. Yet it quickly escapes into the netherworld of potential promise and vanishes once again below the first tier of ordinary consciousness, to remain a harbinger of blessing for the aspiring soul. Indeed therein lies a presence that you are afraid to acknowledge and may not even want to see with the eyes, lest the shadow image in the dark recesses of your consciousness dissipates into thin air and the vague premonition of something great within you disappears forever.
I never told this embassy official the story of my great love for this Pathan tribesman and his beloved family and my place within their hearts as their grand patriarchal Baba, the story of the unexpected gift of this family coming to a man who had lived alone most of his life. It is a story whose final page, when closed, will preserve its sweet memory even thought it has long since ended in time. It is the story of a great gift of seemingly no return that stands in silhouette as it were against a greater light, since we are but shadows standing against an eternal flame, giving evidence once again of the vagaries, the uncertainties and the beauties of the human condition.
With the colorful, full-page visa stamped in my new 10-year passport, and armed with my roundtrip ticket on Shaheen Airways, I made my way to the airport to discover upon arrival that the flight would be delayed, a delay that sank into my heart like a brick falling into a well. A very obliging Shaheen Air agent singled me out from the crowd to give me his mobile phone. “Call me tomorrow morning around 8:00 in the morning. I will have a better idea of when the flight will be taking off; it hasn’t even left Peshawar yet,” he added conspiratorially. I abruptly turned myself around and caught a return taxi home to sleep off the disappointment. I have traveled the globe for decades on long haul flights across vast seas and mountain peaks only to arrive on time in almost every instance; but I was having trouble making my way toward the Khyber Pass, famed in the 19th century for being an impossible barrier to cross in those remote mountains. Many years of living in the Middle East has taught me to be flexible and I have steeled myself to be resigned to the forces that are beyond my control. In that spirit, I fell that night into a deep slumber as though it were part of my written destiny and not to be trifled with without disturbing the harmony of the universe.
I did eventually take off the next afternoon at 3:00 p.m. Shaheen Airways treated me like a first class passenger although the plane, a Boeing 737, had only economy class configuration. The obliging agent wrapped a VIP tag around the handle of my suitcase and put me without asking into seat 1A and kept the other two seats beside me unoccupied. On the other side of the aisle sat two middle-aged pilots who had undoubtedly flown the plane into Abu Dhabi and were now ready to sleep through the ride home. Everyone displayed extra respect to my presence on the plane, from the pilots, stewards and stewardesses, to the horde of male Pathan passengers all decked out in their regalia of headgear, turbans, shawls and cloth Pathan suits, looking wild and unruly in their extravagant attitudes of the mountain man, coming as they did from such areas as Hunza, Swat and the Karakoram. All looked benevolently upon me with genuine smiles as a most welcome intruder, a foreign guest, an unexpected traveler in their midst. The pilot himself came back into the cabin during the flight and sat chatting with me. As the aging, rundown plane lumbered toward the take off point, there was a loud rumble of noise coming from the chaotic cacophony of gruff voices speaking an alien tongue in back of me, a language that was surprisingly becoming more familiar to me to the extent that I could now isolate individual words and actually understand them: “Move over”, “Turn off the light”, “Wait a minute”, the Pashtu phrases came to my mind now like old friends. However, as the plane suddenly sprang to life and lurched forward down the runway gaining speed, the garbled chatter came to an abrupt halt and silence suddenly reigned throughout the cabin amid the spell-bound passengers. I could hear the roar of the engines and nothing more as we lifted off and headed northeast toward the Khyber Pass of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan.
Three hours later, flying low over the city on the approach to the airport, the extended city looked dark and forlorn, low-lying buildings and sheds, deep shadows and flat contours that created an undistinguished, poverty-stricken landscape of mud huts and corrugated iron roofs, a far cry from the dazzling display of light that greets the nighttime traveler into any one of the Gulf countries, where every street is flood-lit and every house awash in the glitter of a thousand illuminations. My Pathan friend Farmana had warned me that if I didn’t see him in the outside line awaiting me that I was not to leave the security of the inner arrivals hall. However, there was no cause for concern for my safety or convenience. He had arranged for me to be met by a representative of Shaheen Airways who stood waiting for me at the foot of the plane. He introduced himself to me like a long lost friend, before we walked way from the plane on foot into the dark, aging terminal. Without a question or a word, I was passed through Passport Control and taken to the luggage collection area where my VIP bag was quickly retrieved with the snapping of fingers and a careless wave of the hand to the skinny porter. Before I knew where I truly was, I was whisked through the arrivals door to see my three body guards anxiously awaiting my appearance, my friend Farmana, his brother Wali and his brother-in-law Babu who each in their turn embraced me in their great, lingering bear hugs that wouldn’t let go. With a wink and a knowing glance, Farmana showed me the revolved tucked within the folds of his Pathan cloth suit. “No need for worry,” he assured me and I thought “no indeed” the gun will solve any problem, if not create a few more. Still it was comforting to know the extent they were prepared to go to take care of and protect me.
We piled into the small Nissan for the 45 minute trip into the outskirts of Peshawar, down the four lane highway on the way to Islamabad full of the commotion resulting from every manner of transportation, including three-wheelers, cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, horse-drawn carts, oxen, chickens, turkeys, truant pedestrians and vendors selling fruits and vegetables along the side of the road, all of this activity filling the highway like some mad road thoroughfare to wonderland. Soon enough we pulled off what passed as a highway, pitch dark except for the beams of the cars penetrating the night like swords of light and plunged into the night bazaar of a small local town. “This is the last town before village,” Farman confided with me. “We will pick up more protection now.” I was alarmed, wondering what he was talking about. The car pulled over to the side and I found that we were bounded on each side by jeeps full of young men dressed in cloth suits and turbans and heavily bearded of course, totting Kalashnikovs in various stages of readiness. “The last stretch into fvillage very dark and dangerous. Bandits sometimes waiting,” Farman confided nonchalantly. And on that comment, the car sprang to life again and we lurched forward in a protected caravan toward the ancestral home of my friend in the remote village of Tarkha.
The village itself was in various stages of shutting down for the night. It was dark enough as we made our way through the one dirt road full of cracks and holes and framed on each side with the crumbling mud walls of the houses and shops of the village. The lights had apparently gone out and inside the shops I could see the flickering of candles.People were making their way through the darkness on foot or on motorcyles slicing through the darkness with their headlights and noisy clatter, but everyone deferred to the movement and progress of the car. Suddenly, we had arrived and I was unceremoniously shoved down the dusty path between two drains and around the corner between tall trees. I heard the chatter and singing of children and then saw them standing in a cluster in silhouette against a hanging lamp in front of the door of the house in which they now lived. When they saw me, they came running forward in a cascade of glee, sounding like birds in a tree at sunset. Shouting Baba, Baba in their unrestrained excitement, they threw flower petals over my head and shoulders as tears came to my eyes. Then each of them salaamed me respectfully and extended their little fingers for the traditional handshake. I noticed through the hubbub that they were scrubbed clear and neatly dressed, the girls’ heads wrapped discreetly in the colorful Pathan shawls. My arrival was an event that they had anticipated and prepared for the entire day.
Raouf, the baby now one and a half years old, sat contentedly in the arms of Farman’s oldest brother, Niaz Mohamed, who himself stood next to the children looking like the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar, the famed Islamic university in Cairo, with his majestic face and sculptured white beard. Raouf sat there as if he owned this niche and had every right to be there, his little legs dangling barefooted from the shelf of Niaz’s strong arm in careless abandon. Niaz Mohamed walked over through the darkness of the night and immediately handed the baby over to me. It has been three months since Raouf sat contentedly in my arms. Once there, he could have stayed there for all eternity to the extent that whenever I wanted to put him down, he protested mightily. But children are funny and know what they want and don’t want. Would the beloved baby Raouf remember this aging bag of bones that he had once clung to and cherished as his beloved Baba. I had been told by Farmana that in order to perpetuate my memory, they would show Raouf my photograph and he would proceed to march around the house showing everyone and pointing to his Baba, the first and only word that he could yet articulate, uttering the sound like some secret, lost revelation newly discovered. In my mind as I had prepared for the trip and now as I stood there at the true moment of my arrival, I wondered if he would remember me. I had lived a long and interesting life and done many things that I could be proud of and a few things as well that I shouldn’t be proud of; but the recognition of the baby and his sweet remembrance had suddenly become for me the only moment worth waiting for. Worlds could turn and eternities pass us by, but if this beloved infant didn’t remember me, it would lay waste my new world and shatter the fragile expectation we having of loving and being loved in return. There is something primordial and unique in the outpouring love of an infant baby. There are no conditions or attachments associated with it and it emerges from the noble presence of the child with its own raw and unconditioned truth. It seems to ask nothing in return and in so doing opens a world of love and emotion that pour out willingly from soul to soul like flood water spilling over a dam. Infants recognize true love in others and give it back freely in return.
Judging from the size of his eyes and the hint of his smile, Raouf was clearly caught up in the excitement of the moment as he was passed from the arms of one grandfather to the other before he had time to think about it or protest. As he settled his chubby frame into the crook of my arm where he had spent so many weekends during what seemed now like the ancient history of our time, he wasn’t sure he was having any of this. I could see it in his eyes and attitude that he wasn’t sure who I was at first and was going to take his time about making up his mind. He sat there in my arms eye to eye and face to face and began to scrutinize what he was seeing. I have always marveled at the child’s ability to being fully in the moment without the excessive context and baggage that adults usually carry around with them, and this moment was no exception. Raouf took me in with all the native instinctive powers available to him as an infant presence, like some regal prince surveying one of his subjects. At first he seemed to roam the topography of my face for some familiar landmarks and for a second he raised his pudgy little fist and touched my beard, as though feeling its texture for hints of the identity from this strange person causing so much excitement; then not getting a satisfying reply from this brief survey, I felt the child look straight into my eyes and I stared back, as if his head were surrounded by a halo in a mist of light.
This was no casual glance; I could feel him probing deeply into the well of my being for a signal that would awaken what he was looking for, as though he were searching through the forest for a glimpse at a passing deer or scanning the horizon of a great ocean for signs of land. For a moment, his gaze was so penetrating and direct, I felt as if I were suspended in mid-air without any ground under my feet, held aloft by the scrutiny of his pure, uncluttered gaze; my heart had become merely a string that was being pulled taut so that I could actually feel pain. Then, without further ado, this boy wonder made up his mind, gave me the most beatific smile imaginable and uttered distinctly the word Baba, as though he were reading notes from a piece of musical script and Baba again and again, setting up echoes in my heart of a distant bell now remembered whose reverberation ran through my being like the sounding notes of some grand adagio, thinking that we had just journeyed together to the world’s edge and had come back with smiles on our faces. It filled my heart with joy to know that the traditional loyalty and faithfulness was already there in the little heart of this Pathan infant. We all made our way into the house together; but my eyes were glistening and wet as I carried this little mountain man in my arms through the door of the house.
The intimate moment passed into eternity and true pandemonium broke loose as the other four children all clambered for my attention, everyone pulling at my pockets and grabbing for my hands, each of the ragamuffins wishing to be the chosen one to escort me through the house. Farman pointed proudly over the top of the maroon and gold painted entry to the message written in elegant Arabic set within the inlay of a triangle framed above the door: “This is a blessing, the house of the son of Saleh Mohammed.” On each side there was another message in Quranic Arabic embellished with arabesques and florals: by the will of Allah. Indeed, I thought, there is a will higher than anything imaginable that guides us and leads the way with infinite knowledge and mercy. I bowed my head as I was hustled through the metal transom of the doorframe and humbly entered this new world that is the immediate consequence of my own making. As though suddenly awaken from some deep slumber and not knowing precisely were I was, I gazed about me at the interior courtyard of these surroundings endeavoring to take in the reality of what I was witnessing, but all I could think of was the evening more than a year before when my friend Farmana and I had resolved to build this great ancestral house made with a love that could withstand time and last for generations.
His mother, widowed now some thirty years, Farman’s father having died when he was about seven years old, had given her son Farman the deed to some prime land in the village, just far enough off the main street not to hear the noise of the buggies and cycles that occasionally picked up the dust of the road. There was a small knoll in the middle of the land that would form the foundation site of the building and the entire area was surrounded by cultivated fields and fruit trees, especially plums and peaches. At the time the children numbered five and there were bound to be more. Farman’s wife Shaista was a robust 16 years old when she married her childhood friend and now eight years later and five children richer, she were a mere 23 and not the worse for wear. She was a tall, strong-looking women with a matronly face full of strength and character.
Farman’s work situation in the Emirates was precarious at best and miserable at worst. He had on-going battles with his Syrian boss who was part owner of a small irrigation and lighting company. As foreman for the company, he saw through the irrigation projects from initiating the bid and securing the tender to laying out the farms in the desert with his team of Pathan workers all hand-picked from his village. When there were no irrigation projects, he sought out lighting contracts for the company such as setting up the garden lighting for the local sheikh’s palaces or handling the lighting for some real estate entrepreneur who was building ten or fifteen buildings. He had earned millions for the company and never got a penny extra by way of bonus for his efforts. His boss called him his right hand man when Farman was pulling in the money or finishing off projects head of time; but if the slightest problem arose, he was a running dog, lazy and good for nothing. For the proud Pathan such as my noble friend, such talk is the kiss of death. We both knew that there would come a time when this love-hate relationship would finally be broken. When that happened they would have to return to Pakistan and take up life once again in his ancestral village. To prepare for this eventuality and with a view to my fast approaching retirement, my friend and I resolved to build a house for the family, for the future, for the children and their children’s children, a house made of stone and brick but sealed with the mortar of brotherhood and love that would last as long as the mercy of Allah prevailed.
The planning of the house had a surreal quality to my inexperienced mind. Who was going to design this imaginary edifice? I naively asked my friend Farman. Who will be the architect, I wondered to myself, setting the design and laying down the plans in detail? But my Pathan friend had a level of practical experience tucked away in his back pocket and a native intelligence that permitted no barrier to fulfilling what he had set his mind to accomplishing. For a simple, village boy from just east of the Khyber Pass and armed with a high school diploma, this Pathan mountain man had a native sense of what he wanted in a house in terms of light and space and airiness and no attention to detail was left unspecified. Planning and designing a house came as second nature to him and he set about it with vigor and speed. I sat with him as he drew up a floor plan and we discussed the number and kinds of rooms that he envisioned, the traditional style of the house with its open inner courtyard, its size, the number of floors, the village workers who would take part in its construction, and the building materials that would make its frame and substance. Once the design was set down on paper, we passed it back and forth making adjustments and alterations as the ideas came upon us. When I saw the finished drawing, I marveled at its conception, traditional functional style and spacious design.
The house itself, in the style of the Pathan tribe in those areas, would be completely closed off to the street without a single window looking outward. From outside, the structure would give the appearance of being a kind of fortress and with good reason, as the area isn’t referred to as lawless without reason. Indeed, I had noticed during my first visit to the area that the houses themselves that lined the street were closed off and inaccessible, as such the village itself became a maze of solid structures that were closed to public view. The only sign of life were the shops built into the walls or the contours of the land and the goods that spilled out into the street in trellises and fruit stalls. Once inside the walls of these miniature citadels, the visitor enters another world of domestic life that resembled a kind of symphony of sound and light and movement. That is why when I raised myself up full height and still carrying the heavy baby Raouf in my arms who was scrutinizing my every movement as I pass through the door of this new house, and while the other children pulled at my pockets and ran around my knees, I gazed in wonder at the interior setting that we had poured over in pencil tracings on white paper fulfilling our dreams of the future for the family. I stopped dead in my tracks and gazed about in wonder. The children broke away from me and ran up ahead and Shaista, Farman’s wife, approached to offer me her Salaams and welcome, christening this house by my presence, she said, and bringing it blessing.
The last time I had seen Shaista was in the cramped quarters where they lived in a small town in the Emirates, with a sitting room that mercifully led out to an outer courtyard where the grounds were surrounded by a wall separating the small villa from the street. There was also a small kitchen and two bedrooms, one for the two of them with the six children and another bedroom for Baba that I occupied on the weekends when I visited the family from the capital. No one dared enter my room when I wasn’t there. When the decision was taken to return to Pakistan, it was Shaista who gave voice to the melancholy that we all felt on their impending departure. It was true that they would be returning to their beloved country and they were excited about that. Three of the children had been born in the UAE and had never seen their own country, and Wajahat, the five year old, had come to the Emirates when he was six months old and remembered nothing of the country of Pakistan whose name was often invoked within the household. The world of his ancestral roots really meant nothing to him beyond the invocation of the name. Even the two older girls had only faint recollections of their time in the village, the mud-packed ground inside the house, the great water pump in the outer courtyard, taking long afternoon naps under the plum tree in the courtyard and the soft lowing of the cow in the room next to the kitchen; the kitchen itself with its great fireplace where all the cooking was done and the great scorched black mark staining the wall that ran from the fireplace to the ceiling, the result of cooking kufta and seasoned rice briyani in great pots sitting on the burning embers of chopped wood in the fireplace.
One morning, we all visited Farman’s ancestral home where he grew up and laid ourselves out under the all-embracing shade of the densely leafed tree. The women set up a fan and served chilled drinks and grapes freshly picked from the rooftop arbor. Peach Tang never tasted so good as we lay supine on brightly colored cotton cloths and pillows, protected from the intense sun and overwhelming heat by the mercy and generosity of that noble tree. There was something proverbial in the shade of this tree covering a good portion of the inner courtyard, mocking the sun in its own heavens with its amber coolness. When the modern accoutrements such as electricity gave out, somebody’s brother or son or nephew was there to fan us unto a cooling redemption. The children played with the baby calf and approached its mother with caution as I gazed up into the density of the tree, marveling at the gnarled knots that tired up the branches of the trees, reflecting years of experience and the onslaught of weather, heat and cold to mark the tree with the wisdom of the ages in that it faithfully gave forth of its fruit for these poor people to eat freely from without ado. One of the teenage boys had an affinity for nature and had brought home a parrot that he had stolen from its next when it was an infant. It was a scrawny looking bird; but was a parrot sure enough with its green coat and red beak. The boy loved the bird that he called Tutee and talk with it lovingly, imitating to perfection its attempts as vocal sound to the extent that it was difficult to decide who was imitating whom. The bird was loose and rummaging freely among the leaves in the corner of the courtyard when suddenly Raouf emerged from the crowd of children and ran over to the squawking bird. He was excited beyond belief and jumping up and down when suddenly he jumped upon the unsuspecting parrot and crushed the life out of it. Not knowing fully what he had done, he turned around and looked at the rest of us with a look of triumph, the same look that he assumed when he killed an ant and shrieked in delight. The family later told the boy that the baby calf had unwittingly stepped on the wandering Tutee by accident. When the boy heard the news, he ran over to the calf and beat it to its knees to give vent to his anger. Raouf kept silent.
When Farman had his classic blowout with his boss and made a sacred vow to sever once and for all the relationship that had been an exercise in restrained compromise for years, Spring was upon us and the buds of the mango tree outside in the courtyard were offering their spuds to the wide world of sun and air. I was scheduled to fly to the US to attend a teaching conference that would bring my return very close to the time of their sad leave-taking. As it happened, when I visited them one last time on the weekend before my own departure from the country, it was my 62nd birthday. On that final weekend, Shaista became the mistress of last times and final things that would never happen again in this time and place, turning all of the little routines of my weekend visit with the family into a last time event that would never happen again. “This is the last weekend you will come to us here in this little house,” Shaista said with a look of sadness spread across her broad face like a map she didn’t want to make her way through. It would be the last time that Farman and the children would gather under the mango tree in front of the wall of the villa to greet me on my arrival, the little feet of Raouf dancing in the dust in a physical rush of excitement and those pudgy little fists working the invisible air as if he were conducting a symphony of joy and infant delight, when the children saw my car turn the corner of their back alley; the last time we would gather inside the house on the late afternoon of my arrival and feast on the sliced home-made cake that I always brought with me, topped with frosting that glittered in the yellow light of the late afternoon desert sun streaming through the courtyard door into the living room as the children spread out across the floor like a living, agitated fan surrounding the magnificent cake with cries of joy and screams of protest at who got the biggest piece amid murmurs of deep satisfaction as the cake quickly disappeared, washed down with great gulps of tea. Years could go by and worlds would turn; yet the memories of these last moments would live on in the heart of my beloved family. Shaista perpetuated the melancholy feelings of the weekend with her pronouncements of “last things”: this is our final evening meal together, the last kufta ball stuffed with egg and dripping with tomato salsa, the final plateful of chapatti and yellow dahl seasoned to perfection with burnished onions. It would be the final time that Mariam and Raouf would clamber for a place on my lap during dinner, both of them receiving the morsels of meat that I placed on their little tongues, with Mariam giggling with delight and clapping her hands when I shouted “wacha, wacha” (the Pashtu word for meat), and Raouf grunting in satisfaction as he munched on his grilled lamb shank, bones and all, then pulling my scented handkerchief from the beast pocket of my cloth to wipe his nose and mouth clean.
For the last time, I crawled out of bed on Friday morning, the Muslim holy day when the faithful gather together in the mosque for the noontime sermon and communal prayer. Tradition had me slipping away in my car to buy the newspaper and pick up fresh hot zatar croissants from a famed local bakery, the attendants always smilingly amusedly at me when I showed up in my traditional Pathan cloth to order the same thing every Friday, like clockwork. On this last Friday, I returned to the house with my parcels to find the house in silence and the door to the sitting room closed. Something was afoot on this final Friday and when I entered the sitting room to peruse the newspapers before the rest of the household would awaken, I was confronted with a hushed silence and the burning candles of a cake. The six children and their two Pathan parents were standing around a little make-shift table singing “Happy Birthday” in a variety of rhythms and tones to the astonished Baba, a last time for such happiness and tears before we all embarked on a new adventure into the unknown destiny that we must face in our lives with determination and courage. I drove away that afternoon, knowing full well that upon my return from the conference in the States, my beloved family would be gone, the dusty little villa with its brave mango tree would be abandoned, and the history of our lives together there would be engraved in the silence and dust and silhouette of the place against the light of the unrelenting desert sun, a place that would hold no return.
The world that had quickly receded into the past as fond memories was now superseded by this new world of spaciousness and light. The first real thing that I noticed after greeting Shaista and feeling the warmth of her welcome was the pale light of the moon and the twinkling stars that shown down their mystery on the inner courtyard of the house. Just after the entrance and under the sparkle of an overhead chandelier extended the short length of an L-shaped avenue that framed two sides of the inner courtyard. I was greeted by a multitude of guests – all uncles and grandfathers and in-laws, nephews and nieces and children of other close friends, all gathered together for this great witnessing and arrival of the “foreign guest” and the beloved patriarch of this place, the one who has made possible the construction of this magnificent edifice that sits amid the serenity of this bucolic setting like a sleeping animal, full of life and color and incredible purpose. Past the pillars on one side, past the screened in grille of the windows of the kitchen with its great oven and floor freezer and wooden cabinets lined across every wall filled with the condiments and spices of the exotic East. Amid the commotion of my arrival, dinner continued to simmer on the stove, sending up great wafts of steam amid the scents of cumin and cloves. I put my head inside to make my inspection and say a little joke amid a flurry of giggles and the tightening of veils and head shawls. Simmering eyes gazed back at me in amazement and terror from sisters and aunts as I moved on deeper into the inner sanctum of the mansion.
As we came to the end of the lip of the L that met at right angles the broad avenue of the main concourse of the house, against which lay all five of the rooms, the two older girls, Najma and Zahra showed me the room that was prepared for me and that would forevermore be identified as the sacrosanct quarters of Baba, never to be traversed unless he is in residence in the house. The next room housed all the children and Farman’s mother, the beds were lined up against the walls of the room like sentinels of the night, each with their pillow and blanket. Moving down the marble floor of the broad concourse, the next room was Farman and Shaista’s bedroom and beyond that a room they had set up as a Western dining room with an oaken table and eight chairs, out of deference to Baba’s strange habit of sitting at table rather than the Pathan tradition of sitting on the carpet on the floor and eating with their hands from the communal plates. Within the courtyard itself, Farman had planted a garden with roses and jasmine and an extensive lawn surrounded by a wrought iron fence. He had also planted lemon and plum trees, now in their infancy but soon to grow strong and tall with the aging of the house. “You can bury me here in the garden,” I joked with Farmana, but he only shook head and refused to think such thoughts, saying: “You will live forever in the hearts of the family and the people of the village,” he murmured. “We never forget and will never forget,” he emphasized, shaking his head.
The house itself was tiered with three levels. From the distance, because Farman had laid a strong dirt foundation and raised the house considerably off the ground so that it dominated the entire neighborhood and could be seen from various vantage points within the village, it looked like a Tibetan pagoda, according to the comments of one person I met. To my reckoning, it looked like a modern-day citadel with its tiled roof bedecked with fresh maroon paint set in contract to the cream-colored walls facing the pathway leading to the street. Stairways on each side of the broad concourse of the inner courtyard, lead up to the second floor where there were two more sizable rooms still empty, with kitchenette and bathroom, and a broad terrace overlooking the surrounding countryside of the village. Another stairwell led up to the third floor where there was one room with another kitchenette, outside sink and bathroom and yet another terraced sitting area that caught the cool breezes of the Spring night. When I saw the room on the third floor, I said to myself, this will be my library and writing room, where, when I retire, I can escape from the hubbub on the floors below. One final flight of stairs led to the roof where I found a little house painted in distinctive squares of green and red that housed the water tank. From the tiled roof of this little structure flew the flag of Pakistan in its vivid green broadcloth decorated with the white crescent of the moon and a single star, flapping majestically in the wind and announcing its faithful allegiance for all to see.
From the roof of the house, I can see the countryside of farmland and fruit trees clear to the horizon. In the distance, there were rows of serene poplars, standing tall and stately, like sentinels of the village, ancient souls that have undergone a metamorphosis into these noble trees, surrounding and protecting this little pocket of domesticity, of life and lives being lived, with all the grandeur of its natural setting. The air is clear and very still; the trees stand in eerie silence and not a leaf seems to move. Down below, the layered tiers of the house spilled down to the ground like multiple balconies in an opera house. Far down below, I can see again the little garden that Farman had so quickly and lovingly constructed with its manicured lawn and infant lemon trees. Already the buds of the white jasmine were making their way into the world to grace the spirit of the house.
One evening before my departure, my Pathan friend Farmana and I have tea upstairs on the roof terrace to watch the evening sunset and survey the grounds from this vantage point. The stars shine down upon us with their detached grace and the silence of the surrounding trees murmur their mysterious presence through image and not word; but I give my mind back to the moment when the idea for this house originally came into my mind. “This is what you have done,” I said to my friend; but he is a noble soul and will not let this pass. “This is what we have done, Yahya, not me alone.” A gift that will last for the generations, I thought, in return for the gift this particular family has given me in return. In the true spirit of an eye for an eye and an ear for an ear that the Quran speaks of, this is a gift of one heart to other hearts, without attachments or conditions, except for the incredible bond that has grown over time between people from alien worlds, like those jasmine flowers in the garden, an unspoken mystery that buds and blooms into an emotion and an experience that has become a gift given in mutual respect.
I wish I could encapture the defining quality of the experience in words as I gaze upon the product of the collective effort of me and my faithful friend. Instead I silence my mind and listen to the sounds of the night that float through the countryside, listen to the hooves of the donkey pulling a cart full of grasses down the village thoroughfare beyond the fringe of the premises, listen to the songlike voices of the children below as they fill the house with their blessed laughter. I listen as I let my his mind run like a stream through the sounds of the house and the surroundings, everything speaking for themselves until we begin to listen and hear, in order to enter into communion with that deep and peaceful sensation that ultimately gives voice to a higher reality that speaks only of what is valuable and true , remembering and fearing and wishing for nothing for myself alone. Only giving, and being given in return.
Alas my stay is but a long weekend and I must return to the Emirates and my duties at work. As we drove through the village on a sultry afternoon on our way to the airport, flashes of the house come into view in the distance. Through the trees and beyond the ridge, I witness one last time my newly built ancestral home constructed on the knoll of some remote village, a home I have been searching for all my life and never knew I would have in such an unexpected, indeed unlikely place. It is a small wonder of destiny amid the great wonder of a higher presence, reminding me of the wise insight of a Sufi saint that entreats the faithful to read the unity of the universe in every created thing. When blessing comes to us, we are lucky if we recognize it for what it truly is, namely an internalized happiness that nothing and no one can take away. Life can be sweet when we least expect it. You work hard all your life, you have expectations, you seek and never find; you wished things would happen and when they do, you wonder why you wished them. You never thought of things that did happen and in happening, they changed you in ways you should have hoped for, but didn’t.
I have gone through life witnessing the seasons in their time. The slowness of time that I experienced in the spring of my youth lay in contrast to my inner clock when I was anxious and in a hurry to grow up and be a man so I could go out into the world on my own terms. This pace evolved into the swiftness of time when I didn’t have enough of it to do all that I wanted of work and success and achievement. Now there is a lingering sweetness to time that tells me if I have not seen enough and can be content with what I have, then nobody would ever see enough or be content. The car sputters forward as the house flickers in and out of view beyond the trees. It seems disembodied in my mind, curiously detached once more in the distance and something not my own but only part of this strange village, only to realize that this is what I have created for this family, my family, who will live on here for generations to come, into a time when my precarious journey on the edge of time and eternity will have pushed me over the edge into the realm I have always dreamed about as a reality worth pursuing.
I am once again taking my leave of all that I hold dear as I have done many times in the past; but I take with me in my hope to return, just as the fleeting images of the disappearing house on the hill remain alive in the mind as a sweet remembrance and a living reality, something that will now be a part of me until my final days drift away, just as it will be apart of the children and their children when I am gone. Such a little piece of the world as I see vanishing before me now would be worth a man’s long life, as I watch and listen and remember the echoes of all those voices that still animate the house, until I sense that I will never be satisfied with seeing, nor my ears filled with hearing, until I can return once more to this inner sanctum of love and life and friendship. “I could stay here a long time,” I say to myself as we turn a final corner and my vision of home vanishes behind a cluster of fruit trees, leaving only a fragment of wishful thinking to roam amid the unwritten pages of a destiny yet to unfold. “I could stay here a long time indeed.”