SHORT STORY SHARE
Welcome to the April Short Story Share. I usually have this feature towards the end of the month. This time, I chose to do it a little early in honor of my late father's birthday this week. The story I share with you today is a an excerpt of a short story that featured in my first book, Shaherazade's Daughters. "A Soul's Journey" is a fictionalized version of my father's life story. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
"A Soul's Journey" (excerpt)
When Gulnare the Fairy was fed up with human beings, she came across Junaid. While she was lost in deep thought pondering their uselessness, pettiness, and downright immorality, she stumbled on a human being who seemed to have a heart beating somewhere in his chest.
Walking through the bazaar, she saw a merchant refusing to accept payment for a beautiful blanket. This intrigued her because most merchants she had seen were amongst the greediest people in the world. She stopped her musings for a moment to watch this most amusing scene.
“No, Hassan. It’s my gift to you.”
“Junaid, please, this is your business. You insult me.”
“You insult me by not accepting my gift. We’re friends, are we not? In the name of friendship, please take it.”
“You’re a rascal. I can’t refuse you anything.”
“My wife tells me the same thing.”
They both laughed, and Gulnare could not help laughing with them. At that moment, she wanted to learn more about this man who seemed determined to show another man kindness. She was intrigued because it was quite obvious that kindness was an ideal that this man lived and breathed in.
“You do realize that you missed something?” she asked.
“What was that?” he responded, fully aware of her meaning.
“Usually, a person chooses something and pays for it. It’s usually not given away. Bad for business, isn’t?”
“Bad for business, maybe but good for the soul definitely. In any case, I made enough money for today. I don’t need the money of a man who has a sick wife to take care of and poor besides.”
“You do realize that I could count on one hand the number of merchants in the world who would have done what you just did? And I would have fingers to spare?”
“I like to think that I am not your average merchant. I like to think that I am not your average anything,” he responded with his dazzling smile.
Gulnare smiled back. As she did this, she wondered if this charming devil in front of her was aware that his smile could rule the world. In the same moment, she realized that he probably did. Judging from his behavior towards his friend, she suspected that Junaid was the kind of man who only used his charms for good, but at the same time, her lack of faith in human beings did not allow her to fully accept this assessment. She was determined to learn more about him.
She returned to the bazaar the next day. She watched him yet again. She saw that every transaction he made was honest. He did not try to rob his customers, yet he made sure he did not incur losses. By the third day, Junaid was quite at a loss because he was not certain as to why this woman continued to watch his dealings. He also realized that if he was aware of her constant scrutiny, then the gossip mongers were too. Then, it would not be long before his wife became aware of her. Normally, his wife was a quiet, unassuming woman, but she could be like a tornado where he was concerned. He did not want to be in the path of her ravings. He had enough to occupy his mind.
At the close of business, he asked Gulnare what she wanted from him. There was something not quite right about her, but he did not sense any malicious intent from her.
“Madam, I am sure you mean no harm, but you know how people can be with their idle chatter. Who exactly are you, and what do you want of me?”
“Trust me. I understand the vices of human beings. But before I answer, ask me for something. Anything.”
“A jug of wine.”
At that moment, a jug of wine landed in Junaid’s hand. He took a big gulp of it right away. He thought for a moment, and then asked, “Madam Fairy, what will you have of me?”
“Your story. Human beings have been quite a disappointment to me, you see. I have become used to their avarice, their jealousy, and their unreasonable desire for power. I have yet to see any of these qualities in you. I would be quite interested to know why.”
“Madam, you might still see these qualities in me. If by the end of the month, you are still interested in my story, you may have it.”
“I think by the end of a year that I would still be interested in your story, but I accept.”
What she observed of Junaid only intensified her interest. He was quite charming, yet genuine. He had a penchant for exaggeration, but he was easily forgiven for it because it was all for fun, never for subterfuge. He was immensely kind, yet immensely brutal. If a person crossed him in any way, they would be put in their place as fast as a cobra strikes its prey. Yet even with this paradox, he was adored by all who knew him. He was now adored by Gulnare, but only the way all devotees adore the objects of their worship.
So at the end of a month, she asked him again. This time he complied.
“I received the first obstacle in my life when my mother died, he began. “I was five, and that is far too young to learn the unfairness of life. We were five siblings, and as our father was a travelling merchant, we were sent to live with his brother, who was living a more settled life. We essentially looked after each other as we were constantly reminded that we owed a debt of gratitude, so we tried to stay out of the way as much as possible.
“My sister was married off as soon as she came of age. I have always felt that I didn’t spend enough time getting to know her. But what I did know, I loved. She was the closest I ever came to having a mother.
“Although there was always an air of indebtedness, I found a connection with my cousin, Ali, right away. From the time I was five years old until now, he’s been more of an older brother to me than my real brother. Ali and I have had many adventures together, some of which I may actually tell you.” He beamed his disarming smile.
“My uncle loved me, but I think he was uncomfortable with how much he admired me because I wasn’t his own son. It was almost as if his love had to stop at a certain point. Otherwise, he would be showing me more love than his own children, at least in his own mind. But I learned to accept love when it is given, even if it is not quite the way I would want or do myself.
“As time went on, I eventually decided to work for my uncle. The work involved much travel and I found it wasn’t for me, that I preferred a more settled life, like my uncle’s. One day as I was walking, I stumbled and hurt my head. I am not sure how long I lay there, but when I awoke I met the first fairy in my life.”
At this, Gulnare shot him a quizzical look. She was almost a bit jealous as she had come to think of Junaid as hers.
“I’m sorry, Madam Fairy,” he smiled, “But my wife, Laila, was my fairy long before you. Not to worry, though. There’s room for you both.”
“I feel so privileged,” Gulnare retorted.
“She took care of me whilst I was recuperating. No human being has made me feel more loved than she. I am almost covetous of her. I simply think of her as mine. Twenty years of marriage and six children haven’t changed that.
“When we had been married fifteen years, trouble ensued in the kingdom where I was born. You’re puzzled? Yes, this is now my home, but I was born in the kingdom of Basra. At the time of my birth, the king was a fair and tolerant man. His son was something different altogether. He was always a power hungry, arrogant sort. He wasn’t a man interested in fair governance. He was only interested in what his legion of sychophants had to say.
“When the lines were drawn, I found myself on the wrong side. My family did not have roots in Basra. So the new king decided that the kingdom of Basra should only be for people who had their ancestral roots in Basra. Never mind those of us whose families had helped to build Basra. We had no place in a land we had helped to build. We had thirty days to leave or die. I took my family and whatever possessions that were not taken from me and came here to Sanaa.
“It was a difficult time. We only took what we could literally carry on our backs. I had built a reputation in Basra. Here, I had to start all over again, and I knew no one. I took my family to the first inn I could find and set off to make inquiries in the marketplace. I didn’t have enough money to set up another shop so I had to find work as a shopkeeper’s assistant. I went from owning several shops to a shopkeeper’s assistant and with a large family to support. But one must do what one must.
“It wasn’t long before I met my mentor and friend, Rashad Uncle, who kindly gave me a job and after a few short weeks, opened his home to my family and me. His daughters were married and gone, and they welcomed the clamor that my family brought.
“After a time, there was even more clamor as our sixth child came into the world. My poor wife was so afraid to tell me. She didn’t want to add to my burden, as she felt that providing for another child would be another burden for me. How wrong she was, Madam Fairy. I have never seen any of my children as anything but a blessing. Never for one moment was I unhappy at the thought of this child. I loved her from the moment I knew she existed. I knew she would be nothing but a boon for us, and she’s never proved me wrong.
“Rulers come and go, and the tyrant in Basra also went the way of all flash. That place will never be the same for me. This is my home now. Would you believe Ali came to Sanaa at the same time my family did, and we did not know for a month of the other’s whereabouts? Ali found work on the other side of this bazaar, and I happened to meet him one day. I think Allah never meant for us to be too far away from each other.”
“There are some people in life, Junaid, who are meant to love you and be in your life no matter what you do, and there are some people who are not meant to love you and be in your life no matter what you do,” Gulnare said.
“Very true, Madam Fairy,” Junaid responded.
In any case, Ali and I found each other. I’m glad we did because it took me a long while to find true friends besides Rashad Uncle and his wife. I was a stranger here at that time, and all my time was spent providing for my family. There’s a difference between moving to a new place by force than by choice. There’s a built-in resentment that you must overcome. I must say it took me a while to let go of my resentment. When you don’t do terrible things yet terrible things happen to you, you start to become bitter.
“I found that issues that I thought I had buried were coming out in rather unreasonable ways. My reaction to Ali’s brother, my cousin, Saleh was one. Saleh and I were never as close as Ali and me. He always resented it and me. He was a spoiled child who was used to getting his own way, and when he didn’t get it, there was a problem. When he had his little tantrums, he was placated. Of course, I was not spared his injustices, his thoughtlessness that sprang from overindulgence. He would do things to me here and there simply because he could, and I would have to get over it because: Who was I at the end of the day? Why shouldn’t I put up with Saleh? He could do no wrong in his parents’ eyes, so there was no point in arguing. So with a new land and a new life, I decided there would be new rules. No longer would I endure slights and disrespect. So when Saleh moved to Sanaa with his family, I decided Saleh was no longer welcome in my home.”
“You look puzzled, Madam Fairy. Disappointed? Not sure what you conjured up in your head about me, but I am only human, not an angel.”
“I am puzzled as to what you hoped to accomplish with such an action. Since circumstances brought him down a peg, you decided to show your power? By throwing a tantrum just like him? Men have no idea what power really is. Power is silent restraint. Refraining from action when you know you can act. Men will never understand this.”
“Over time, I have learned. Acting, reacting, and in some cases overreacting, these things accomplish nothing. But you will allow some mistakes in a journey that has been plagued with unforeseen, burdensome, circumstances?”
“As long you learn from them, which it seems, you have,” Gulnare concluded.
“Don’t be sure, Madam Fairy. He’s long since moved to Yemen. He’s no longer here. So, I suppose we’ll never see how much I’ve grown,” he smiled.
“Somehow I think we will get to see,” she smiled back.
“I think I would like to make peace with him at some point. We both survived expulsion. We both have families. All our petty squabbles seem insignificant now.” He paused. “In any case, Allah then saw fit to throw more trial my way. He fights with me. I fight with him. It’s okay.”
“Stop it, Junaid. Allah has better things to do than fight with you. He tries us all. It makes us better Muslims and better human beings.”
“Then, I must be the best Muslim and human being in the world,” he smiled again.
Until next time... look behind and beyond the veil...