Be in the world, but not of the world.
The torture room was ready for use. There were harnesses for hanging the prisoners upside down, rows of sharp-edged batons, and smelling salts, used syringes filled with dark liquids and worn leather straps, tourniquets, clamps, pliers, and equipment for smashing the feet. On the floor there was a central drain, and on the walls and every surface, dried blood–plenty of it. I was manacled, hands pushed high up my back, stripped almost naked, with a military-issue blindfold tight over my face. I had been in the torture chamber every night for a week, interrogated hour after hour on why I had come to Pakistan.
All I could do was tell the truth: that I was traveling through en route from India to Afghanistan, where I was planning to make a documentary about the lost treasure of the Mughals. My film crew and I had been arrested on a residential street, and taken to the secret torture installation known by the jailers as "The Farm."
I tried to explain to the military interrogator that we were innocent of any crime. But for the military police of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, a British citizen with a Muslim name, coming overland from an enemy state–India–set off all the alarms.
Through nights of blindfolded interrogation, with the screams of other prisoners forming an ever-present backdrop to life in limbo, I answered the same questions again and again: What was the real purpose of my journey? What did I know of Al-Qaeda bases across the border in Afghanistan and even, why was I married to an Indian? It was only after the first week that the blindfolds were removed and, as my eyes adjusted to the blaring interrogation lamps, I caught my first burnt-out glimpse of the torture room.
The interrogations took place at night, although day and night were much the same at The Farm. The strip-light high on the ceiling of my cell was never turned off. I would crouch there, waiting for the sound of keys and for the thud of feet pacing over stone. That meant they were coming for me again. I would brace myself, say a prayer, and try to clear my mind. A clear mind is a calm one.
The keys would jingle once more and the bars to my cell would swing open just enough for a hand to reach through and grab me.
First the blindfold and then the manacles.
Shut out the light, and your other senses compensate. I could hear the muffled screeches of a prisoner being tortured in the parallel block and taste the dust out in the fields on my tongue.
Most of the time, I squatted in my cell, learning to be alone. Get locked up in solitary in a foreign land, with the threat of immediate execution hanging over you, a blade dangling from a thread, and you try to pass the time by forgetting where you are.
First I read the graffiti on the walls. Then I read it again, and again, until I was half-mad. Pens and paper were forbidden, but previous inmates had used their ingenuity. They had scrawled slogans in their own blood and excrement. I found myself desperate to make sense of others' madness. Then I knelt on the cement floor and slowed my breathing, even though I was so scared words could not describe the fear.
Real terror is a crippling experience. You sweat so much that your skin goes all wrinkly like when you've been in the bath all afternoon. And then the scent of your sweat changes. It smells like cat pee, no doubt from the adrenaline. However hard you wash, it won't come off. It smothers you, as your muscles become frozen with acid and your mind paralyzed by despair.
The only hope of staying sane was to think of my life, the life that had become separated from me, and to imagine that I was stepping into it again . . . into the dream that, until so recently, had been my reality.
The white walls of my cell were a kind of silver screen on which I projected the Paradise to which I longed to return. The love for that home and all within washed out the white walls, the blood-graffiti, and the stink of fear. And the more I feared, the more I forced myself to think of my adopted Moroccan home, Dar Khalifa, the Caliph's House.
There were courtyards brimming with fountains and birdsong, and gardens in which Timur and Ariane, my little son and daughter, played with their tortoises and their kites. There was bright summer sunlight, and fruit trees, and the sound of my wife, Rachana's, voice, calling the children in to lunch. And there were lemon-colored butterflies, scarlet red hibiscus flowers, blazing bougainvillea, and the hum of bumblebees dancing through the honeysuckle.
Hour after hour I would watch my memories screened across the blank walls. I would be blinded by the colors, and glimpse in sharp detail the lives we had created for ourselves on the edge of Casablanca. With my future now in the balance, all I could do was to pray. Pray that I might be reunited with that life, a melodious routine of innocence interleaved with gentle calamity.
As the days and nights in solitary passed, I moved through the labyrinth of my memories. I set myself the task of finding every memory, every fragment of recollection.
They began with my childhood, and with the first moment I ever set foot on Moroccan soil.
The ferry had taken us from southern Spain, across the Strait of Gibraltar. It was the early seventies. Tucked up in the northwest corner of Africa, Tangier was a melange of life like none other. There were beatniks and tie-dyed hippies, drug dealers and draft dodgers, writers, poets, fugitives, and philosophers. They were all united in a swirling stew of humanity. I was only five years old, but I can remember it crystal clear, a world I could never hope to understand. It was scented with orange blossom, illuminated by sunshine so bright that I had to squint.
My father, who was from Afghanistan, had been unable to take my sisters and me to his homeland. It was too dangerous. So he brought us on frequent journeys to Morocco instead. I suppose it was a kind of Oriental logic. The two countries are remarkably similar, he would say: dramatic landscapes, mountain and desert, a tribal society steeped in history, rigid values, and a code of honor, all arranged on a canvas of vibrant cultural color.
The animated memories of those early travels were relived on the whitewashed walls of solitary, mile by mile. As I watched them, I found myself thinking about the stories my father told as the wheels beneath us turned through the dust, and how they bridged the abyss between fact and fantasy.
The interrogations in the torture room came and went, as did the jangle of keys, the plates of thin soupy daal slipped under the bars, and the nightmares. Through it all, I watched the walls, my concentration fixed on the matinees and the late night shows that slipped across them. With time, I found I could navigate through weeks and years I had almost forgotten took place, and could remember details that my eyes had never quite revealed. I revisited my first day at prep school, my first tumble from a tree-climbing childhood, and the day I almost burned down my parents' house.
But most of all, I remembered the tales my father told.
I pictured him rubbing a hand over his dark mustache and down over his chin, and the words that were the bridge into another world:
"Once upon a time . . ."
Sometimes the fear would descend over me like a veil. I would feel myself slipping into a kind of trance, numbed by the frantic debauched screams of the prisoner being worked over in the torture room. In the same way that a bird in the jaws of a predator readies itself for the end, I would push the memories out, struggle to find silence. It only came when the uncertainty and the fear reached its height. And with it came a voice. It would ease me, calm me, weep with me, and speak from inside me, not from my head, but from my heart.
In a whisper the voice guided me to my bedroom at the Caliph's House. The windows were open, the curtains swaying, and the room filled with the swish of the wind in the eucalyptus trees outside.
There is something magical about the sound, as if it spans emptiness between restraint and the furthest reaches of the mind. I listened hard, concentrating to the hum of distant waves and to the rustle of crisp eucalyptus leaves, and walked down through the house and out onto the terrace. Standing there, the ocean breeze cool on my face, I sensed the tingle of something I could not understand, and saw a fine geometric carpet laid over the lawn. I strolled down over the terrace and onto the grass, and stepped aboard it, the silk knots pressing against my bare feet. Before I knew it, we were away, floating up into the air.
We moved over the Atlantic without a sound, icy waters surging, cresting, breaking. Gradually, we gathered speed and height until I could see the curve of the earth below. We crossed deserts and mountains, oceans and endless seas. The carpet folded back its edge, protecting me from the wind.
After hours of flight, I glimpsed the outline of a city ahead. It was ink-black and sleeping, its minarets soaring up to the heavens, its domed roofs hinting at treasures within. The carpet banked to the left and descended until we were hovering over a grand central square. It was teeming with people and life, illuminated by ten thousand blazing torches, their flames licking the night.
A legion of soldiers in gilded armor was standing guard. Across from them were stallions garlanded in fine brocades, elephants fitted with howdahs, a pen of prowling tigers, and, beside it, a jewel-encrusted carousel. There were oxen roasting on enormous spits, tureens of mutton stewed in milk, platters of brazed camel meat, and great silver salvers heaped with rice and with fish.
A sea of people were feasting, entertained by jugglers and acrobats, serenaded by the sound of a thousand flutes. Nearby, on a dais crafted from solid gold, overlaid with rare carpets from Samarkand, sat the king. His bulky form was adorned in cream-colored silk, his head crowned by a voluminous turban, complete with a peacock feather pinned to the front.
At the feet of the monarch sat a delicate girl, her skin the color of ripe peaches, her eyes emerald green. Her face was partly hidden by a veil. Somehow I sensed her sadness. A platter of pilau had been put before her, but she had not touched it. Her head was low, her eyes reflecting a sorrow beyond all depth.
The magic carpet paused long enough for me to take in the scene. Then it banked up and to the right, flew back across the world over mountains and deserts, oceans and seas, and came to a gentle rest on our own lawn.
In my heart I could hear the hum of Atlantic surf, and the wind rippling through the eucalyptus trees. And in my head I could hear the sound of keys jangling, and steel-toed boots moving down the corridor, pacing over stone.
Examine what is said, not him who speaks
On our childhood travels to Morocco, my father used to say that to understand a place you had to look beyond what the senses show you. He would tell us to stuff cotton in our nostrils, to cover our ears, and to close our eyes. Only then, he would say, could we absorb the essence of the place. For children the exercise of blocking the senses was confusing. We had a thousand questions, each one answered with another question.
At dusk one evening we arrived at Fes. As usual the family was squeezed into our old Ford station wagon, vinyl suitcases loaded on the roof, the gardener at the wheel. That evening I caught my first sight of the massive medieval city walls, impenetrable and bleak like the end of the world. There were figures moving beside them in hooded robes, carts laden with newly slaughtered sheep, and the piercing sound of a wedding party far away.
The car stopped and we all trooped out.
In the twilight my father pointed to a clutch of men, huddled on the ground outside the city's grand Imperial Gate.
"They're gamblers," said my mother.
"No, they are not," my father replied. "They are the guardians of an ancient wisdom."
I asked what he meant.
"They are the storytellers," he said.
For my father there was no sharper way to understand a country than listening to its stories. He would often line up my sisters and me, and enthrall us with episodes from Alf Layla wa Layla, A Thousand and One Nights. The tales worked in a special way, he said, diverting the mind while passing on a kind of inner knowledge. Listen to the stories, he would repeat again and again, and they would act like an instruction manual to the world.
As far as he was concerned, the stories and the ability to tell them were a kind of baton to be passed from one generation to the next. He used to say that many of the tales he related had been in our family for centuries, that they were fastened to us in some way, a part of us.
He would sometimes make me uneasy, stressing the grave duty, the burden of responsibility, sitting on my shoulders. My school friends used to love stories as much as me, but we differed. From before I could walk I was reminded that these tales were magical, that they contained wisdom, and that one day I would be expected to pass them on to my own children. Deep down I never really expected the time would come to pass the baton on.
But it did.
One night as I tucked her into bed, Ariane put her arms round my neck and whispered into my ear: "Tell me a story, Baba." I froze, for the words had been mine thirty years before.
I felt under-equipped to handle the duty of teaching with stories. Ariane and Timur enjoyed listening to my small repertoire, but when I tried to explain the many layers, they said they didn't understand, or that I was boring them. I thought back to how my father recounted the tales to us, how he had passed the baton on. I pictured myself in his study with my sisters, sitting in a line on his turquoise divan. He would be perched opposite, leaning forward cupped in a grand leather chair, fingertips pressed together, sunlight streaming in through French doors behind.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from In Arabian Nights by Tahir Shah. Copyright © 2007 by Tahir Shah. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.