The site of the outskirts of Damascus was a welcome site for the Silk Trader. The familiar soil, the familiar smells of the small side markets, and the streets leading to the mosques, squares and the souks was something the trader had missed for many months on his travels along the Silk Road.
It was a pity he was home for such a short period of time. Soon he would swap his silk for damask and head to Jerusalem, then for a boat to Europe and the trading capital of Venice. Profit was a hearty thing to come by; and if it meant giving up your time to be away from your home to chase it, then that would be something you would have to do. Allah would look after you, and by putting faith in Allah, you would always find your way back home.
The Silk Trader knew that to be true every time he returned safely home. The sounds of Damascus and the faces who prepared for his return only confirmed for him his faith and hope. But today was different. For this time in Damascus, the Silk Trader was in need of attaining guidance. Not guidance for his brain, his purse, or his god; but guidance for his heart, the most unpredictable weapon in the world.
Yes, he knew Allah would not approve of it! And many times he had tried to not think of it; and try and focus on his work, his belief, or anything else that came across his mind. But no, everywhere he went, from the silk route to Damascus and on to the floating city, there it was.
This was the main reason he was most grateful to be back in Damascus. And he would not be satisfied until he had his mind rested of the heartache that gripped him.
The first night he stayed with the caravan in their camp near the souks and markets of the old city; the hubbub of late night trade feeding on his body and soul. He had travelled many places but he had always missed the comforting sounds of the souks, the winding alleyways that stretched seemingly as long as the Silk Road itself or all the shops that managed to squeeze into the nooks and crannies of the old city.
The following day the Trader tried the traditional Damascene way of washing your troubles away. Following his morning trading in the markets outside the Al-Hamidiyah Souk, he entered into the baths, where he was washed, steamed and massaged with essential oils. According to the locals, your troubles would flow away with every drop of sweat you shed and every moment of relief you experienced.
Following the massage, the Silk Trader sat within the relaxing area of the baths, covered in towels, smoking a hookah. He was at peace, he was cleansed, and he was happy. But he knew that from the moment he left this moment of heaven, resumed his trading, prayed, ate and slept that night; at some point the heartache would return.
No, no. This is not the right way to deal with the problem. What to do? He did not know. The effects of the hookah were cleansing, yes, but he was not satisfied. He knew that he shouldn’t be thinking these thoughts, it would distract him from his work. He left the baths, and, as expected, he still felt a sense of pain from his heart.
As he walked towards the markets and his place of work, his eye caught the look of another man. A fortune teller, an old bearded man in a grey loincloth sat at the exit to the Souk, preaching the future to an Arabic man. Out of the corner of his eye the Trader could tell the Arabic man was listening, but not taking the fortune teller seriously. He could tell he was trying to hold back a laugh.
The Trader scolded in disgust. That Arabic man should be helping out this poor fortune teller; should feed him up and clothe him. Instead, he sits there, engaging in something that is haram!* Yes, only god knows the future, and no man has the ability to see it; but nevertheless he should treat him with respect.
However, following the disappearance of the fortune teller from his eyeline, the Trader forgot him, instead focusing his mind on his business. That day, following his trade of silk for damask, which provided a roaring and prosperous trade, he walked to the food markets with his fellow traders of the caravan, and after a beautiful meal of fattah bi-az-zayt, he went with his fellow traders to the mosque for evening prayers.
He didn’t mention his pain to them, despite the deep affection he had for them. He felt his thoughts were something that were cursed, doomed to affect his soul on his day of judgment. Would thinking these thoughts stop him from going to heaven? Would that be his fate?
As he began to pray, his broken heart was far from at peace. He hoped that Allah would see his plight, and show him the way to a better future. He had always been a faithful, practicing Muslim. He had always been at peace with Allah, who had led him to a good life of plenty.
Yet, then he saw the reason why his heart was broken. In his dreams, there she was; seeming so far away in the past. These thoughts were blasphemous! Could he have gone down the wrong path from the day of their meeting? Was this some sort of punishment?!
He paused, in the middle of his prayer. If you are going to pray to your God, give him your full attention! Do not focus your thought upon something other than the love and trust for Allah. And Allah knows best. He refocused and finished his prayers.
As he made his way home through the streets of Damascus, he could hear thunder far off in the distance, away towards Jerusalem and the sea. Rain is coming, he thought to himself. He hadn’t seen rain in Damascus since he was a boy, before he started to walk and help his father on the caravans.
He remembered how rain would always seem like a gift from heaven; that its goodness from Allah would always bring life. He may have been told much about God, but nothing was comparable than seeing his power.
Then, for some reason, his mind drifted to the poor fortune teller, who he imagined would still be sitting outside the Souk. What brought him to think of that man? Something in his mind told him to go see him, but he dismissed it immediately. He made his way back to the camp, and fell into a troubled sleep.
The storm clouds had come closer in the morning, the lightening in the sky a sturdy warning to what was about to come. The caravan, following its successful trading yesterday had plans to move on to Jerusalem, however the thunder and clouds building in the sky made both human and animal unwilling to travel.
As they waited for the clouds to subside, the Silk Trader decided to go for one last walk through Al-Hamidiyah Souk. No matter the weather, he would still be leaving his home soon, and thought it would enrich his soul to take in its life and beauty one more time.
Yet, as he wandered through the Souk, with the clouds a furious grey above him, the presence of the old fortune teller still wandered across his mind from time to time. Repeatedly, he tried to dismiss it, but the harder he tried, the harder the man returned.
Eventually, even though he knew it was haram, he would hear what the fortune teller had to say to him. He made his way to the exit of the Souk, and there was the man again, almost by fate waiting for him. He cautiously approached.
“Good day” he called out to him in Arabic, “would you like me to tell your fortune?”
Instantly, the Trader wanted to leave. But he was here now, and anything to stop this man from entering his mind was welcome.
“Yes” he replied, holding out his hand. The fortune teller examined it.
“Ahhh” he said, looking thoughtfully upon his hand, examining its contours. The trader wanted to pull it away, he could not take this seriously.
“Your line of life is long my friend, you have lived much and travelled much. And you have been on rough seas though I see”
What? The Trader saw that the fortune teller was looking at a scratch on his hand. He pulled his hand away as thunder clapped high above him. The fortune teller looked up at him in shock.
“I am sorry” the Trader replied ferociously. “I will not believe this! Your words mean nothing, you cannot predict the future. Only Allah can!”
The Fortune Teller stood up as the rain began to fall. He looked old, but as he stood he towered over the Trader.
“Then why did you come to me?” he commanded.
The trader stepped back, shuddering.
“My friend” replied the Fortune Teller. “I can see the pain in your eyes. From the moment you looked at me yesterday, I knew you would return. Your mind is troubled”
The rain began to thunder down, but the Trader by this point did not care. Sensing the Fortune Teller would be cold, he took him back to the camp, and as the thunder and lightning roared down outside, inside he clothed the man and fed him well.
As they talked and enjoyed each other’s company as the rains fell, the Trader told the Fortune Teller of his troubles in his heart. He spoke of how not even the baths and prayers to Allah had soothed his soul, and he was afraid that he had lost connection with God.
After a moment of silent contemplation of what the Trader had said, the Fortune Teller spoke.
“May I speak to you, not as a fortune teller, not as a man of different religion, but as man? You may take my advice as guidance, or dismiss it as you may”
The Trader hesitated for moment, unsure of where this conversation would go, but then nodded.
The Fortune Teller leant forward. “Love is the most powerful force in the world. Love of god. Love of partner. Love of all. It can be guided by your god, or by someone else, or by our desire for gain. So what if we lose love?
We all do. A person, a place, a god. It can be anything. But is it really lost? Is it like one day, you wake up and it was like that love you experienced, was it never there? No. It is always there, and always a part of you. You may say that you cut ties, but you never forget that love, no matter what kind it is. That is what makes it all powerful.
We trap it, you know? Yes my friend, I think that love can be trapped. That love that you hide will always be there, bound by the past. It could be bound by anger, by sadness, by respect. That love that you lost for country, god or person, is always bound by something. Why is it bound? Because love is ecstasy when you need it, but a poison once it is lost, and its binding stops the poison’s spread.
How else can you move on and find love anew? Find the experience to know to live as now, not as will be? That, my friend is your suffering. You suffer from the poison of love”
The Trader sat back, taking in the Fortune Teller’s words.
“Can it leave you? Do you think that love can leave you?” he asked.
“Love never dies. You learn from love every time its door opens and closes. How else can you learn from it? How else can you learn to love again?” replied the Fortune Teller.
“That’s what makes love so powerful my friend. And so poisonous” he smiled.
He sniffed the air. “Storm has stopped” he beamed, “and I must be on my way”
The Trader rose as the Fortune Teller did, and parting the cloth entrance to his tent. The sun was shining in the hot humidity, the familiar sand and dirt a beautiful golden brown from the rain, the clouds billowing off into the distance.
“So what do I do?” asked The Trader. “To escape the poison?”
The Fortune Teller looked at him.
“It is up to you my friend” he replied. “If your heart is broken, the only way you can heal, to me, is to believe in what you know. Because, no matter how broken your heart is, what you trust is what you know best”
The Trader smiled, shutting his eyes calmly. A wash of release came upon him. Trust what you believe he says. He trusted in the will of God. And Allah always knows best. His god knows best.
He opened his eyes. The Fortune Teller was gone, disappearing back into the winding streets.
The Trader hesitated. Should he believe the words of this man? Had he committed haram? He did not know. But he knew that Allah knew the future better than he did, and that he would be in safe hands with him by his side.
Ripples among the traders began to grow and one by one they started to back and leave, preparing for their long walk to Jerusalem and beyond. The Silk Trader soon joined them in their trek.
As the outskirts of Damascus went by, the Trader looked and smiled. How the healing powers of finding his way back home worked! He arrived a man lost, he left in the hands of God.