ISLAH by Jad Kaado

Ali the thief tightened the keffiyeh around his face, leaving only his bright blue eyes piercing through the veil.  He surveyed his surroundings to make sure no one was around, and grabbed his knapsacks in a hurry.  Gently, he cradled the ceramic bowls under his arms while tying the sacks onto the saddle of his camel.  A smile slithered onto his face, as he admired the fine paint on the vases and the lapis lazuli stones that filled them.   He easily obtained his new treasures, and reveled in the fact that they would sell quick in the markets.

Ali peered at the horizon once more, observing the golden ocean of sand in the Nebo Valley, and took a deep breath.  He knew he could not linger any longer, for if he stayed, the chances of a Beni Shem scout finding him would be grave.  Ali leapt gracefully onto the humps of the camel and made himself comfortable.  The sun was almost at midday now, intensifying in heat.  He leaned back as the camel jolted forward, leaving behind a family of corpses alongside a broken caravan.

The great thief Ali raced through the desert, swaying along with the camel as it bobbed up and down, rhythmically to the beating of the desert sun.  He kept his head low, intent on not being noticed as he made way to the closest oasis.  

Riding along, Ali felt a strong gust of wind blow past him.  He tightened the reins of the camel for it to stop, and gazed at the bulbous dirt clouds bursting up from the ground.  He quickly grabbed the straw from his side and hit the camel, ordering it to turn around and start running.  

However, as fast as his camel could run, it was no match for Mother Nature’s might.  The clouds grew larger as they picked up speed, rocking the dusty ground underneath them.  Just as he thought it could not get worse, Ali turned his head to find that the clouds had formed into a massive sandstorm and was gaining much more momentum.  

He swatted the camel in a panic, hoping it would gallop faster; however, it just screeched louder and began to slow its stride.  Ali knew there was nothing he could do.  He could hear the dusty front approaching him, and hastily covered his face, while clamping on tightly to his ride.

The sandstorm engulfed his vicinity, barely noticing the tiny speck that was the thief and his camel.  He gripped his ride tightly, trying to gain control, while the winds howled around him.

The camel ran around, completely disoriented, veering Ali off his course.  

After what felt like several minutes of wasteful wandering, the sand storm settled down, completely dissipating into non-existence.  Ali brushed the sand off his head, while the camel shook off its new coating of dust.  He undid his keffiyeh, revealing his bright blue eyes, and coughed up a bunch of sand.  He was relieved to breathe in fresh air again, and basked in the glory of the desert sun.  

Ali regained his thoughts after a few moments and noticed something peculiar.  The sand around him looked different.  Instead of the golden dust that coated the Levantine desert, the sand was now a shimmering white, brighter than the wool of Awassi lambs.  He looked around nervously.  

The camel laid down to rest, while Ali double checked his cargo, ensuring he still had the prized gemstones with him.  He looked around, trying to find any markers that might indicate where he might be, but all Ali saw was an endless sea of white.  After resting, he climbed back on his camel and rode towards what he presumed to be east, in hopes of finding an oasis.

Hours passed as the thief rode on.  The sun was just as incessant as the desert, searing and strident.  Ali could feel his grip on the reins loosen.  His pouch of water was empty, and he knew he could not survive much longer.  He bowed his head, and for the first time in his recent memory, he muttered a small prayer.  The camel kept trudging forward through the thick sand, slower with each step it took.  

As they climbed over a sand dune, Ali noticed a wondrous sight, a massive golden pillar, standing like a needle among the sea of white.  It called to Ali the thief, offering him salvation in his time of need. He smacked the camel with conviction, as not to waste time, and darted across the barren land with a sense of desperation, towards to the newly discovered stylite.

Ali staggered, with tears running down his face.  He stumbled off his camel, almost crushing his ankles, and bustled over to the pillar. He desperately ran around the pillar, looking for help, only to find that the area was devoid of any life.  It was all futile, he thought to himself.  He arched his back up against the sandstone of the tower, beaten, and flopped down on to the sand, accepting the fate that was upon him.  The thief looked up at the sky one last time before passing out.  

Just as he closed his eyes, Ali felt a cool dampness upon his forehead. He looked upwards, only to notice drops of water softly dripping on him.  Life returned to the thief’s body, forcing him out of his deathly slumber.  He knew it was not rain, as it was still scorching hot; the water had to coming from the top of pillar.  

He quickly examined the structure and noticed it was weathered, with notches interspersed alongside the sides.  Ali decided to climb it.  If he did not find water up there, he thought, at least he would have a better view of what was ahead.

He began to ascend the pillar, slowly stepping on the bricks that were jagged enough to give him footing.  With every step he took upwards, the notches became more spacious, making it easier for the him to climb.

After scaling several cubits, Ali noticed wedge shaped inscriptions lining the face of the pillar.   He ignored the strange symbols at first, but as more started to appear, he wondered why they were carved so far up the tower.

As he went up another cubit, he discovered magnificent carvings painted in blue and yellow.

Each relief depicted a picture of warships of old attacking fortified cities, kings hunting lions and deer on chariots, and large celebrations featuring an abundance of food, beer, and dance.

 Ali noticed, however, not all the carvings were jovial.  Scenes of endless lines of bound prisoners ran atop the reliefs, accompanied with mounds of severed heads.  Impaled carcasses and dismembered body parts hanging from trees were hidden in the backdrops of the feasts, and people were lined up waiting to get their hands severed.  

His eyes wandered across the carvings, making him lose balance.  His foot slipped off from one of the notches, forcing him to lunge towards the pillar.  He grabbed on tightly to the bricks and regained his composure.  After a few breaths, Ali continued climbing.  

He finally reached the top and pulled himself over the edge, falling onto the rectangular platform of the pillar.  Ali laid down on the gritty sandstone, greedily breathing in fresh air around him.  His arms and legs ached, and his mouth was beginning to crack from the arid weather.

He stood up and saw a familiar figure on the opposite end of the pillar.  Ali moved closer towards it, only to find an old man, with a large white beard, seated in meditation next to a ceramic jug.

The old man, with his eyes closed, tenderly greeted Ali.  “Welcome my friend, I’ve been waiting for you.”  Ali stood still, staring him down, and rasped: “What do you mean?  Speak! Who are you?”  

The old man raised his head and finally looked at his visitor.  “My name is Islah, and soon this will be your name too.”

Ali burst out laughing at the old man as he walked towards him. “Do you have any water with you?”  

Islah glanced over to the amphora at his right.  Ali rushed over and grabbed it, drinking the contents ravenously.  “Do you have any more?” he wheezed.  Islah paused for a moment, still eying the newcomer in front of him.    

“Don’t worry Ali,” said Islah, “you will have plenty of water here for you.”

The great thief looked at the jug, finding it filled with water again.  His voiced waivered, “Where am I? And how do you know my name?”

Islah smirked as he went back to his meditation.  “That is not important. Where you are now, is a place both ancient and divine, built by those who have unspeakable names.”

Ali turned away in disgust.  He yelled at the old man, “I’m leaving! And the water comes with me. I don’t need any of this shit coming from you.”

Islah sat quietly, poised, and closed his eyes.  He responded, “Oh, but indeed you do.”

Ali ignored his answer and walked over to the edge of the platform, looking over for a way back downwards.  However, instead of finding what he had left, a new sight was beholden to the thief.  The chalky sand had now turned into a bright teal color, reminiscent of Ali’s eyes.  His camel, once tied up and resting, was now nothing but a broken skeleton, bones sprawled out, with his prized lapis lazuli lost in the desert sand.  The sides of the pillar appeared smooth and flat, leaving not a jagged brick or notch for anyone to climb up or down on.  He was trapped.  Ali quickly turned around, bellowing again at the old man.  “What is happening?! I need to leave!”

The old man lifted his head once more, his bushy beard bouncing as he talked.  “The day, O’ Ali, you leave from this place, will be the day that you have decided to change your ways and repent for your actions.  On that day, you will become Islah.”

Just as the old man finished his sentence, he disappeared into a white mist, leaving Ali the Thief on the top of the pillar, alone with his thoughts and his jug full of water.