This rare creature used to hang out at our house a lot. He wasn’t welcome anywhere else because he made other parents uncomfortable. And for good reason. When children played with him, someone always lost a shoe, fell off a bicycle, broke a tooth, or was stung by a scorpion. But my mother was impractically softhearted and couldn’t bear to see the child rejected like this. She felt sad to see Nader placed in the social outhouse from the very moment of his birth. I was born in a hospital, so instead of the outhouse, I was taken to a nursery. Yet even that wasn’t good enough for my mother. “What do you mean I need my rest?” she had screamed at the doctor. “You think I’ve been through a lot, what do you think my poor baby has been through?” She had gotten out of bed, stormed into the nursery and rescued me. The next morning the doctor was furious, partly because my mother had allegedly bitten one of the nurses, but mostly because all night I had been alternately kidnapped and reclaimed. Medical belief at the time was that the mother gets more rest without the newborn, but on the night of my birth, no one in that hospital got any rest.
Except for occasionally chomping on a nurse, my mother connected seamlessly with other souls. On the many nights when Nader became ill and death threatened to steal him away, everyone else prepared their condolences. Only my mother stood by him and believed in his strength to survive. She used to joke bitterly that Nader was an orphan in reverse. Whereas most orphans have parents that have passed away, this one has parents that are alive but treat their child as dead. She also took pains to explain to other children Nader’s oddball behavior and his risk taking. “Imagine,” she told us, “what it’s like to be only ten years old and be told you’re not going to make it to eleven. You too would be in a hurry to find out what’s the fastest you can go on a bicycle, or what scorpions are made of.”
So to get some nurturing, Nader made up any excuse to be near my mother. He would usually appear around lunchtime and ask if she needed anything. Did she need help with the truckload of coal that just arrived for the winter? The coal had to be separated into different grades and sizes. Small ones for cooking, and larger ones for heating, and the coal dust had to be wetted and fashioned into cannonballs that burned slowly throughout the cold nights. As Nader, my mother, and I sat sculpting little carbon planets, my mother would warn us, “Never burn coal inside the house with the doors and windows shut. There is an invisible menace that comes out of burning coal that kills whoever breathes it.”
Or Nader would show up around lunch time and ask if he could wire some electricity to the outhouse and install a light bulb that could be turned on and off from inside the house. He was quite handy with electricity, a sort of prodigy. Of course my mother had forbidden me to have anything to do with electricity. “There is an invisible menace inside those wires that kills whoever touches it.”
“Why does electricity not kill Nader?” I would ask.
“Because he understands the ways of it,” she would explain.
So a combination of Nader’s deliberate usefulness and my mother’s compassion had allowed Nader to create a home for himself with us. For a while the arrangement worked well for everyone. Nader’s parents were happy because the child had a place to go, and showed up less often at the homes of relatives where he wasn’t welcome. My mom was also happy because she now had a helper around the house. Nader was almost a man compared to me, and this was very practical because my father was always away in some foreign land on business trips. But I wasn’t so sure about the arrangement. I liked not being lonely, but I was always testing my mother to make sure I hadn’t lost her attention to Nader. This made Nader uncomfortable, because most of the time I was absurdly unfair. I blamed him for broken items, missing knickknacks, or stepped-on flowers. I made fun of him, snatched his possessions, or insulted his parents just to start a fight and make him look like the bully. Once, when I had crashed our bicycles on purpose, I really did end up hurting myself. As my mother tended my badly scraped elbows, she scolded me, “See how God punishes children who are unkind to orphans? It is not in the way of Islam to be unjust to those who are at your mercy. Especially to orphans, because the Prophet himself was orphaned at the age of six. His father died when Mohammed wasn’t even born, and his mother died when the Holy Prophet was only your age.”
“Mohammed had a mom?” I asked.
“Of course he had a mom. Everyone has a mom.”
“Why did his mom die?”
“It was God’s will.”
“I know why it was God’s will. If Mohammad’s mom hadn’t died he would not have become a prophet.”
“What an absurd thing to say. Why?”
“Because if prophets have moms they have to listen to their moms instead of God,” I said.
“Nonsense. Jesus’ mom saw him grow up. So did Moses’ mom. They were not orphans.”
“Well, neither is Nader,” I said pouting. “Because his mom is still alive, unless his real mom is a Jinn. So stop telling me to be nice to him because he is an orphan like Mohammed. And besides, he always calls me ‘imbecile,’ and he wishes I would fall into a well or get eaten by a dog, so that you could be just his mom.”
“Don’t say that, sweetheart,” she pleaded. “Nader thinks of you as his younger brother. He would never wish you to die.”
So she believed, until the whole arrangement came to a sudden halt by an event that is still known to the entire clan as “The Incident at the Well.”
One summer day during a big gathering of the relatives at our house, Nader and I and cousin Pari, a girl about my age, were sent to the marketplace on an errand to buy fresh pebble bread for lunch. On the way there was a quanat. We were so frightened of the Jinn in there that if on a late desert afternoon our elongated shadows stretched in its direction, we would scramble home in a panic. This time, as we carefully avoided the well, Nader suddenly told us that he wanted to look inside and see the Jinn city down there. Pari and I froze in fear at the very thought. But Nader argued that this was the day and the hour of the year when the sun shone straight down the shaft, and you could see all the way to the bottom.
How Nader’s hypnotized us to overcome our mortal dread, defies my recollection. All I remember is that Pari and I were soon enslaved to his enthusiasm. Keep in mind that a quanat isn’t the kind of well that attracts tourists with its rustic stone enclosure and scenic dangling bucket. This design starts out as an insidious funnel level with the ground. Its innocent prey doesn’t even see it until he is almost upon it. The sides of the funnel are so steep that past a certain point, the victim begins inexorably to slip toward the center, where the shaft suddenly drops to unknown depths.
Nader made us hang on to his ankles while he slid on his belly, past the event horizon to the very edge of the black hole. The plan was working beautifully until Nader got his first glimpse down the shaft. Suddenly, he started to wave his arms over the shaft, whooping, laughing, and taunting the echoes that came from the bottom of the well. His body was kicking itself free of our grip in rhythmic spasms, as though he had suddenly been possessed by a call to dance. Nader’s macabre celebration was so noisy that it totally drowned out our desperate screams warning him that we were losing our grip on him. Finally, Pari fell back exhausted. That left just me hanging on to one ankle. I wasn’t letting go, but I was slowly being pulled in. Then at last, my strength gave out and I too fell back.
Faster than the speed of light, Nader’s arms jerked back and his claws dug deep into the packed dirt around the funnel. Slowly, like a scorpion retreating from a fight, he backed out of the funnel to safety. His limbs moved with such natural confidence, he appeared so in his element that I believed he could have easily crawled all the way down the well if he wanted to. When Nader stood up, his eyes glowed a wild red. Pari, who saw what was about to happen, ran for help. Nader began to whirl uncontrollably, raving with an eerie eloquence about the blue sky that was down there, the sun that shone up at him, and the sounds that talked to him from so far away.
“I saw the city!” he said excitedly. “Threads of light keep it from falling into the upside down sun.” Then he turned to me and said, “Come! You must see for yourself.”
“No!” I screamed, starting to run. But he flew to catch up with me, grabbed my ankles, and started to wheelbarrow me toward the funnel. I crisscrossed my arms every which way to change direction, but Nader foiled my every counter maneuver. “Mom! Mom!” I screamed so hard I thought my throat would bleed. But no one could hear me. Help was at least half an hour away. Then, just as I was about to enter the funnel, I managed to twist my body around and look Nader in the eyes. When he saw how sincerely terrified I looked, he let go of me disgustedly. His expression was asking, “What sort of an imbecile wouldn’t want to look down a well shaft dangling by the ankles?”
Halfway back, we ran into a posse of frantic parents. After I told my mother what had happened, grave doubt crossed her face. Her trust in Nader had almost cost me my life.
Each parent took turns telling Nader that he was forbidden to be around the children. While Nader was being ritually ostracized, my mother had been busy consoling me, so she was the last one to confront him. She coldly said as little as possible, as though Nader didn’t deserve her anger. I can’t say which one felt more betrayed by the other. The crowd of relatives, many of whom my mother had scolded for shunning Nader in the past, now looked on with an air of vindication. A hue of ‘I-told-you-so’ tinted their every word of consolation.
I didn’t see Nader for a long time after that. But that didn’t mean I was safe from him. As the Jinn grows older, he grows stronger. Often when my mother had visitors well into the night, I used to fall asleep on her lap, listening to her voice, her breathing, and the sound of her blood rushing through her arteries. On those nights, Nader would find me in my dreams. Never as himself, but shape-shifted as a dust-colored dog that I would encounter alone and unprotected. I would run away, the dog growling at my heels. Just as he was about to catch me, I would see a quanat that in the endless desert was my only sanctuary.
I was so terrified of that dog that I fought off sleep for fear of dreaming it. Until one night, during a lucid moment, I suddenly faced the animal and angrily wished that it would stop coming to my dreams. To my astonishment, the dog trotted away and I stopped dreaming about it. It was so easy. All I had to do was make a wish. As it turned out it was the wrong wish, but the Jinn had nevertheless granted my first wish.
Wishing Nader away wasn’t so easy in waking life. We still shopped at the same marketplace. Every time I saw him, I would hide and watch him. Each time his posture looked straighter. He was taller, moved more gracefully, and appeared healthier. Now he quite looked like his parents, even when he didn’t think anyone was watching. But clearly there was something strange at work. Those same dull features looked so strikingly charismatic on him that he made his parents look like imperfect replicas. He had new friends also unrealistically handsome, like touched up photographs. They traveled in packs, effortlessly, like the desert dust propelled by the breeze.
As Nader matured, the relatives started to change their minds about him. They were now admiring his politeness, taking pride in how well he had started to do in school, and how quickly he was learning the restrained ways of manhood. The “Incident at the Well” was not forgotten, but it was magically transformed in their memories. Now it made them reminisce about the follies and close calls of their own childhoods. Aunt Tahmineh revealed that the scar under her chin was from my father catapulting her off a seesaw, and my father had us guffawing about the time his oldest sister pretended to sell him to the bathhouse washer woman.
The forgiveness was so thorough that the adults even laughed it off when Nader disappeared on the eve of his circumcision. When he finally showed up for the ritual, each relative assumed some other relative had taken him in, but wasn’t talking in order not to embarrass the young man.
Nader had been visiting with relatives that night, but not from our clan. I alone knew that the Jinn have their own ritual of the thirteenth birthday. On the night of his disappearance, Nader was somewhere at the bottom of a quanat with his real kin, being initiated into secrets, powers, and wonders that only the Jinn know. No one would have listened to me about this. To them, Nader was just a diamond in the rough that had finally been faceted.
By the time Nader was fifteen years old, even my mother had come around to inviting him to visit our house again. The two were no longer acting out the roles of the emotionally needy child and his angel of mercy. In fact, there was a trace of shyness in my mother’s responses to his teasing charm. So restored was her trust in Nader that one night, during a clan gathering, she sent me and Nader out to the marketplace to buy pebble bread.
It was a full moon, and where there was no moon, there were stars like dust. The moon was so bright that we didn’t have to take the road to the marketplace. The shortest path was a straight line across the rock-strewn desert toward the marketplace lights, twinkling like an ascending constellation. During the walk I was afraid to talk, and Nader didn’t seem to have anything to say me. Then, as we neared the dreaded quanat, I remember wishing we had something to talk about that could cover up the awkwardness of the moment. As soon as I had that wish, a shooting star streaked quietly across the sky above the marketplace.
“Wow, did you see that?” I cried without thinking.
“That was Boragh,” Nader replied calmly. “Still traveling the skies. She has the body of a horse, the wings of an eagle, and the face of a woman. The Prophet Mohammed rode on Boragh on the night of his Me’raj, his ascension to heaven.”
“Mohammed went to heaven on a horse?” I asked.
“No, not all the way,” Nader said. “On the night of his Me’raj, Mohammed was sleeping in his hometown of Mecca, when the angel Gabriel woke him up and presented him with Boragh. Mohammed mounted Boragh and flew from Mecca all the way to a holy rock far away. There, he prayed with Moses and Jesus, and when he was done praying, he began to go up to heaven. As he rose, Boragh flew up with him, but Mohammed said, ‘No, Boragh, the face of God is not for you.’ He tied Boragh to the holy rock, and started to rise again. But this time the rock itself floated up toward the sky saying, “Me too, I want to go to heaven.’ But Gabriel put his foot on the rock and held it down, saying, ‘No, Rock, the face of God is not for you.’ After that Mohammed went up to heaven all by himself.”
“Then what happened?” I asked eagerly.
Nader gave me an astonished look. “What do you mean ‘then what happened?’ He saw God!”
“Sure, but when he came back from Heaven what did he say happened there?”
“Well, there is a verse in the Koran about it. It says, ‘Glory to him who carries His servant by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Far Away Mosque.’”
“Was Mohammed Boragh’s servant?” I asked.
“No,” he said impatiently. “The verse is talking about God carrying Mohammed, not Boragh.”
“But what does the verse say about Boragh?”
“Nothing. That’s all there is,” he said irritably.
“Where’s Gabriel? What happened to the rock who wanted to go to heaven?”
We were by now quite past the well and no longer needed this conversation, but I couldn’t let go of this fascinating yet unfinished Me’raj story. Where was this far away mosque that housed the speaking rock?
“How can a rock speak? Is it still there?”
“Of course it’s still there. Right there on top of a hill in Jerusalem.”
“The far away mosque is in Jerusalem?”
“Yes, and if you go there you will see the big dent on the rock where Gabriel stomped on it, and said ‘No rock, the face of God is not for you.”
“Gabriel must have stomped hard to make a dent. Did it cry?”
“Wouldn’t you cry if someone stomped on you like that?”
“What does the rock have to say about all this? It still speaks, doesn’t it?”
“No, it hasn’t spoken in ages. It needs the wind to give it voice. Just like we need our breath for speaking. Its mouth is a hole that the wind blows over to make a sound, like when you blow over the neck of a bottle to make it whistle. So as soon as humans built a temple over it, the rock couldn’t speak anymore. When the Jinn caused the temple to be destroyed, humans built a second temple over it, and when the Jinn arranged the fall of that temple, humans built a mosque in its place.”
“Why don’t people want the rock to speak?” I asked.
“I don’t know. They can’t even hear it. Only the Jinn have the right kind of ears. Moses heard it hundreds of miles away.”
“Moses was a Jinn?”
“Shhh! That’s a secret. Do you know what the rock used to sound like on a windy day?”
“YYAAHHWWWHHHH,” he mouthed in a windy rumble.
I felt frightened. “Rocks don’t talk. You’re making all this up.”
“I am?” Nader bent down, picked up a rock and handed it to me. “What do you see on this stone?”
Instantly I saw a creature ogling me with big eyes. I was so startled I almost blurted out ‘Besmellah.’ But I convinced myself that it was just the play of moonlight and shadow. I turned the face to one side and watched as the corner of its mouth warped into an eye and one of its eyes transformed into a nose. Now I was looking at a different face. Any which way I turned the rock, the moonlight crafted new living faces out of the bumps. Some faces were laughing, some were angry, some just stared. I had walked under the desert moon before, but it had never created spirits in such numbers. A protective voice in me tried to raise the alarm, but some entity slid past my awareness like an assassin and quickly silenced the sentry. A menace had been unleashed against me, but my sense of dread had been sabotaged.
Nader’s face caught the moonlight in the same way as the bumps on the rock, making him look like a different person with every motion of his head. It was as though he too was a rock morphing into a hundred lives. He encouraged me with his gaze to scan the desert full circle and view the thousands of rock beings that surrounded us. I gasped as I realized how all this time we were being quietly watched. “But aren’t they sad they are rocks and can’t move?” I asked innocently.
“No,” said Nader. “They see us the same way, as some rocks in the middle of their desert. All those faces you are holding in your hand, in their own world each is holding you in its hands, wondering if you’re sad that you can’t move.”
I put the faces gently down and felt their collective grips loosen on me. “There are so many of them,” I said, looking around with new eyes.
“Many more than you think,” Nader said. He bent down again, grabbed a fistful of dust, and asked me to take a pinch of it to rub between my fingers.
“Tiny, tiny rocks,” I thought. A grand unification theory was dawning on me. Dust is rock! It feels different, it can fly in the wind, get into your eyes, and you can make mud out of it. But it’s all rock. “Dust is little rocks,” I heard myself mutter in amazement.
Nader kept his intense stare on me. “Not always so little,” he said slowly raising a finger to the large moon hanging over us. And as my gaze turned up towards the stars dusting the desert sky, I experienced, for the first time in my life, the euphoria of Understanding.
The hubbub of the marketplace could now be clearly heard, and soon the smell of fresh bread reached us, reminding me how hungry I was. Then I realized that my eyes were also starving to see. They were gobbling up every color, form, texture, and meaning they encountered. At the busy bakery, I saw that the dough in the huge earthen vat had fingers. As the baker pulled away a part of it to flatten on his dough board, the two parts hung onto each other like mother and child for as long as their reach would allow. I saw the thousands of pebbles lining the oven floor patiently endure the growling flames all around them, their eyes fixed on the cashier’s scale where two golden birds in love briefly kissed the kiss of justice, then flew apart.
On the way home, I closed my eyes every few steps to let my other senses participate in the feast. I noticed for the first time, the snake-like hiss of my own neural activity against the desert silence. I felt in a new way the powdery give of dust under my feet, and delighted in how expertly my tongue dodged my teeth as I chewed on hot bread.
A distant scream warned me to sober up, but I pushed it away distractedly, letting myself free-fall into my new awareness. How lucky I felt to be the master of such a wise and obedient Jinn. All I had wished for was a chat to distract us from the awkwardness of the passage by the well, and my Jinn had used this simple, wasted, wish and fashioned rapture out of it. The warning scream became more urgent. I could no longer ignore it. It was saying, ‘Stop the wish, stop the wish.” But it was too late! By the time we had neared the quanat again, my third wish had already begun to take form, and I could not stop my mind from going down to where it was going. I had been tricked.
If you ever run into a lamp with a Genie in it, run the other away. You think you’re his master? You are not! The very hand that rubs the lamp belongs to the Genie. The very desires that feed your wish belong to the Genie.
“Wish for something else,” I thought. A new bicycle, soccer shoes, chocolate ice cream. I was trying to fend off the assault of cognitive hunger with a shopping list–a piece of paper that stood flimsy chance against the battering ram of the one wish I dared not think of. And the urge grew stronger and stronger the closer we got to the quanat.
Oh, you seed of a Jinn! Why did you do this to me? Why did you bind my soul to the rocks, to the moonbeam, to love and to justice, and to the growling flames of hell, so that there is only one road my passions will take?
Nader pretended he knew nothing of my desperate struggle. Occasionally he kicked a rock or picked one up and threw it into the far darkness.
The quanat was just one more stone’s throw away when I made out shadows creeping by its edge. They were fidgeting impatiently, eager for me to make my wish. With only seconds to untangle myself from my deepest desire, desperation silenced all thoughts in me but one: my salvation lay in wishing beyond what the Jinn could possibly grant. To avoid the plunge, I would have to shoot for the moon. And Nader had inadvertently given me just what I needed to thwart him. Silently I let the impossible wish take form in my mind.
I wish to see, oh Jinn, the Face that awaited Mohammed in Heaven on the night of his ascension! Now, grant this, you impotent creature, or crawl back into whatever quanat you came from.
Triumphantly, I swung to Nader expecting him to contort painfully and burst into flames. He had a big grin on his face.
“What are you smirking about?” I yelled out loud.
Nader appeared startled by my anger. “Nothing, I just remembered there’s no school tomorrow.”
“What? Tomorrow is the weekend?”
“No, you imbecile, don’t you know your religious holidays? It’s Ashura.”
It had been a long time since Nader and I had been on a name-calling basis. This was the old Nader who had been hiding from the relatives all this time. “I hate Ashura,” I whined. “It’s dismal. All the stores are closed. No movies, no restaurants. Nothing ever happens on Ashura.”
Nader’s grin widened. “Tomorrow’s Ashura won’t bore you as much.” The threat, scared me, but at least I had held him off until we had journeyed safely past the gates of the Jinn city. Tonight was a stalemate. Tomorrow let him do his worst.
On Ashura I woke up early to greet the desert morning. And when I opened the house gates, a creature on the other side leaped away.