“Hey, hey boy.”
Rahim turned; a stranger atop a carpet, a bowl of dates in his lap, tossed him a water skin. He took his fill. “Thank you.”
“Are you lost?”
Rahim took a step back. “No.”
“From here?” He straightened his green kufiya atop his head.
“No, but have lived year for several years.”
“Never seen you around.”
“It’s a big city.”
“True, true, but I do get around.” His tone descended. “Guess I just haven’t gotten ‘round to you. Until now that is.”
“A million people is a lot of people to get around to.”
“True, true. So who’s your father? Maybe I’ve gotten ‘round to him.” He tugged on his mustard-colored jubbah’s sleeves.
“Don’t have one.”
“So you’re alone out here?”
Rahim rubbed his neck: as much as he loved having a new robe, unworn wool left more than to be desired. “Sorry, but I have to go. Thank you again for the water.”
“No time to delay, I need to go.”
“Where? Where could you possibly have to go on a day like this?” He lifted his arms overhead.
Rahim palmed his stomach. “Yes. Actually, I am.”
“Here.” He patted the ground at his side. “Sit down, sit down. Why you in such a hurry? Slow down, look around. Look at all the people. Look at them just bustling around. So much energy. Ever wonder who they are? Where they are going? Where they are coming from? And look at all the colors! Sensational. Beautiful.” He closed his eyes. “Take a deep breath…take in all those smells.” Rahim did neither. “It’s a beautiful day. Too beautiful to rush. You’ll overheat.” He looked at Rahim. “And by the looks of it, you’ve been overheated for some time. Here, have some more water.”
Rahim took the skin and sat.
“So…Can an eighty year old man have a child?”
“Can an eighty year old man have a child?”
Rahim, with no more patience for riddles, blinked hard.
“Well, what do you think?”
“I don’t know…probably not.”
The man leaned close; a broad grin revealed bright teeth. “Sure he can…if he has a neighbor whose daughter is twenty!” Nudging Rahim in the side, he erupted in laughter. “No? You don’t like that one? Come on, that’s funny. Have you heard the one about the man who claimed to be a prophet? Some people asked to see proof. The man said, ‘I will tell you what is in your mind.’ Intrigued, the people went along, wanting to see if he could tell them. You know what the man said?”
Privy to the punchline, he laughed to himself. “This is rich…He says—” Again, he chuckled. “—he says—now get this—he says, ‘You think I am a liar, not a prophet!” He slapped his thigh four times and boomed with laughter. “Oh come on! Don’t you get it? A liar, not a prophet?”
“Yes, I get it.”
He cleared his throat. “I’m Mu’akhkhir. Mu’akhkhir al-Musih.”
“Good to meet you Rahim. So why is it I haven’t seen you before?”
“I’ve been in the Order.”
“Oh, so you’ve pretty much been cooped up.”
Rahim nodded. “But I just left.”
“Freedom!” Mu’akhkhir announced, tossing his hands in the air. “Exciting stuff. Then indeed you must take a look around, take your time. No need to rush—you’re free.”
Mu’akhkhir popped a date into his mouth and extended one to Rahim. He declined and Mu’akhkhir set it back in the exact spot from which he’d taken it.
It might take Rahim an entire lifetime to understand what happened next, for everything changed.
Every single little thing.
As if the world itself long withheld from him some secret sack full of beauty and glitter and joy. Maybe the word “freedom” did it, somehow loosened the knot with which the world hid its refulgent secrets. And the munificent world, in one wholly improvident, gratuitous, extravagant gesture, dumped its contents. Like waves cut free, odors, aromas, and fragrances fell first. Perfumes and oils, leather and fire, food and spice—mint, parsley, poppy, nutmeg, cinnamon, musk, cardamom, saffron, and clove.
And everywhere Rahim looked, the market buzzed circadian vibrancy. He scratched his arm.
“Hey, where you going?”
Rahim inhaled hard and skittered up the road.
“Hey, hey! Well—you’re welcome!”
It glittered. All of it. Every single thing glittered and glowed and resounded. Enough to blind and deafen. What kind of sight compared to this? What ability to hear compared to this mellifluous resounding hum? Maybe the world the turned inside-out and upside-down. Vaulted arcades, once above him, now lay far below, their wavelike dips and crests frozen in time. A cloud amongst a thousand, he floated across market street after market street.
Now it should be said that Rahim did well to stay on Al-Baraq Highroad where he met Mu’akhkhir. After his uncle reminded him of how rambunctious and sometimes skittish he used to be, he made Rahim promise to follow his directions. Though the shorter way to Wali’s, the Shayk told him (despite Rahim’s objections that he could “cut over to Barely Street, cross through the Sharkiyah Quarter, and cross the Lower Bridge”) not to take the Old Order Road through Karkh. “The Sharkiyah,” his uncle said with all seriousness, “is not safe now. The Bloodliners and Traditionalists are especially hostile to one another right now.” He first made Rahim promise that much before he gave him directions.
So Rahim did good to remain on Al-Baraq Highroad as instructed. Good, that is, until the world changed. If indeed the fire had gone out, then that word “freedom” lit a bonfire, for everything blazed. The callow and unfledged boy molted first into the oil and incense streets. Jasmine recalled her dreams; frankincense rejoiced in liberation; and the dewy rose lamented the loss of her thorns. He tested them all, and like a dog, followed the trail of the most delicious and sapid scents until a spiced lamb kabob crossed his path, curled its beckoning finger, and offered a ceremonious hand. A dry bitterness tightened his eyes, a sharp something warmed his lungs. The kabob, its nimble aroma lingering just under his chin, tickled him with soft fingers and guided him onward…