This is not a story that you will find inscribed in the annals of man’s history, though some of the historical and geographical details are similar to the reality of the times about which it was written–the Spanish conquest of Morocco.
This story is written from the realm of possibilities, what could have happened, and perhaps what should have happened, had only more of the children of Jesus gone forth with the same measure of love, courage, humility, and compassion as this man. How different history would have been if that had been the case; but sadly, it was not to be. However, it is still not too late. The sands of history have not yet fully passed through the hourglass of the present. There is still time, albeit short, for those who will heed the call in their hearts to go forth unto the despised and forgotten.
– – –
Across the vast expanse of the Moroccan desert plains a lone rider came. The setting sun at his rear cast a long shadow in the sands ahead of him. At his left, the imposing monolith* of the Atlas Mountains rose steeply out of the plains, dwarfing the lonely traveler. Far across the interminable waste to his right, small whirls of wind-whipped sand spiraled in conical funnels that dissolved into clouds of sun-reddened dust. But the arid mystique that would have enticed a pioneer or adventurer held no attraction to the rider.
He huddled low on the back of his camel as one wounded, not only in body but also in spirit. Great and sore had been the battle he had witnessed over the past days, and tragic the defeat. Gingerly he felt beneath his tunic, touching the open wound on his left arm. It had been inflicted by the bayonet of a Spanish soldier, who had fallen by his own sword.
Sheik Abdul Aziz, for that was the traveler’s name, had fought bravely, but the odds were too great and the enemy had been superior in strength and weaponry. In the end, he had no recourse but to call the decimated remnants of his men to a retreat. Martyrdom is a fine subject for Friday sermons in the mosque and elegies* in honor of the dead, but Abdul Aziz knew of the realities that had to be dealt with, the widows and fatherless children that were war’s unfortunate progeny*. Retreat was always a hard choice to make. But, he had reasoned in the split second of decision, the Spanish army would soon move on to conquer other towns, and his services would be more useful if he returned to his own city and tried to organize some defense against the coming onslaught. After he’d sent his army home, he headed towards his home–the journey he was now undertaking.
The thought of what was to come suddenly engulfed him and he turned his eyes despairingly up to the lone star that appeared above the eastern horizon.
“Allahum-ma, hear the humble prayers of Thy servant, and deliver us from the hands of these who come against our people.”
With this prayer still on his lips, he came opposite a wadi* which led up into steep rocky hills to his left. The route was a familiar one. He would take the wadi up until it came to a narrow winding mountain path that led through the hills into the valley beyond, where his hometown of Jerada was nestled. He would camp in the wadi at night and take the path home in the morning, hoping to arrive sometime before the searing heat of the noonday desert sun.
A few hundred yards into the wadi, Abdul Aziz alighted from his camel and set about gathering some sticks of brushwood, cast offs of the scanty shrubs which owed their existence to deeply concealed waters. The camel sank down gratefully into the desert sand and began gazing wistfully off into space, as if pining for a long-lost oasis, seemingly forgetful of the past days’ barbarities.
Abdul Aziz suddenly froze in the act of picking up a dry branch. Had he heard the faint sound of a bell? Unlikely, as the grass was so scarce in the region that the Bedouin rarely brought their herds there, and desert travelers were few and far between. Only a seasoned traveler would risk such a perilous journey. But there it was again, a distant but unmistakable ringing.
As he gazed towards the opening of the wadi an almost imperceptible movement caught his attention. As he strained his eyes in the gathering dusk he could make out a figure turning up the wadi towards him. It was difficult at the distance to see details, but it appeared to be a man leading a donkey laden with saddlebags.
Something in the humble bearing of the approaching figure seemed to portend no fear. Nevertheless, it wasn’t worth taking chances. Abdul Aziz guessed that he had not yet been seen by the stranger. His camel was nestled down behind a boulder, and he himself stood in the shadow of overhanging rocks.
Carefully he withdrew further into the shadows, and with the sure-footedness of a veteran desert warrior, he made his way stealthily up onto some overhanging rocks that formed a natural platform along one side of the wadi. Keeping low he moved noiselessly down the platform until he came above where he judged the approaching figure to be. He lay on his stomach, slid to the edge and peered over to assess the nature of his potential adversary.
Suddenly the man’s donkey began braying noisily, dug its heels into the sand and refused to walk any further. It was a welcome distraction, for Abdul Aziz could now watch with ease as the man was so taken up trying to control his frantic beast that he would scarcely have noticed if a company of Saracens* came upon him.
With an amused twinkle in his eye and a smile that played around his lips, Abdul Aziz spoke softly to himself, “When will the infidel learn to listen to the wisdom of his donkey?”
By now, he had taken in a good measure of the man’s appearance. He wore a rough long tunic, bound with rope around the waist and his head shaved in the middle, which gave the appearance of belonging to some kind of a religious order. He was well built, swarthy, and handsome, without a trace of cloistered asceticism*. Abdul Aziz guessed the man to be in his late twenties, and assumed him to be Spanish from his complexion and features, which was borne out by the words he was shouting at his donkey, some of which Abdul Aziz recognized.
In addition to being a warrior, as sheik of his village Abdul Aziz was also a poet and a scholar. He spoke, and could read and write English passably well, as well as a smattering of Spanish. It was in English that he spoke his first words to the newcomer.
With a nimble leap that was worthy of one much younger than his forty-eight years, he cast himself down the seven- or eight-foot drop onto the sand. Landing upright on his feet, he pulled his scimitar from its scabbard and pointed it straight at the astonished man’s neck.
“On your knees, infidel!” he cried.
With no need for coercion, the man sank to his knees, looking up in wide-eyed terror. The donkey immediately became calm, as if there was no further need for protest now that the reason for his intuitive agitation was discovered. For a long, delicious moment Abdul Aziz kept his sword at the man’s throat. A Spaniard indeed, and what a perfect opportunity for revenge!
“Submit to Islam, infidel, so that I may be persuaded not to take off your head and send you to Hell where you belong!” he growled.
The man looked up at him and there was a sudden strange absence of fear in his eyes that troubled Abdul Aziz.
“Salaam aleykum*, “he managed to gurgle.
Years of tradition overcame Abdul Aziz, and he could not resist answering,
“Wa aleykum salaam*.” He found himself unable to suppress a smile. “So, the infidel attempts to speak in Arabic?”
“It is a humble attempt,” said the foreigner.
“Yet not altogether displeasing. Your accent is intelligible.” The sword remained pointed at the throat.
The man opened his mouth to speak again. “If you would send a humble pilgrim to his meager reward, before attaining his goal, I pray that you would do it speedily.”
“A pilgrim?” replied Abdul Aziz. The sword left the throat. He thrust it to the northeast. “Rome is that way.” He swung it around to the east. “And Jerusalem is that way.” Then a little further south. “And Mecca is that way. So, if you are indeed a pilgrim, you are hopelessly lost. You are not only on the wrong road, you are on the wrong continent.” The sword did not return to the throat.
“My pilgrimage is different from that which you have envisioned. I do not count myself worthy to attain the rank of pilgrims to such holy places as you speak of. I come as a simple beggar seeking only to worship my Creator in the temple of God which is enshrined within every human heart.”
“Ah! So you have come to convert us.”
“Convert you?” the man laughed. “To what?–To the blood-soaked Catholicism that condones, sanctifies and blesses the murder of the innocents of your land and the oppression of your people? I think not.”
“Then what? What is this pilgrimage?” Abdul Aziz’s voice betrayed a flicker of interest.
“If you will grant me stay of execution for one hour, I will tell you of it.”
Abdul Aziz thought for a moment.
“Well, in my great mercy I have a mind to allow you to live a little longer that you may practice your Arabic more perfectly, so that when you are indeed dispatched, should God have mercy on you and grant you entry to Paradise, you will be more familiar with the language spoken there.”
“May I humbly request the kind name of him I wish to thank for such benevolence?”
“I am Abdul Aziz Suleiman Mohammed Ali, Sheik of Jerada,” he said with defined dignity. “And what is the name of my guest?” His own courtesy surprised him.
The Spaniard swallowed deeply, and a hopeful tear sprung involuntarily into his eye. Guest? That certainly sounded like an improvement on decapitation.
“Francisco,” he said simply. Something had gradually melted between the two men. Both of them knew, but neither could understand. It was as if some long accrued* glacier of mistrust was being touched and thawed by the balmy desert air. Francisco sensed that he may now be permitted to stand up, and did so.
“Come,” said Abdul Aziz. “My camel is just up ahead and I have been gathering sticks to make a fire. Let us do so before the last light leaves us. When we sit, you can tell me your tale.”
Soon a cheerful fire was blazing, casting enormous dancing shadows across the imposing walls of the canyon-like wadi around them. Abdul Aziz produced a pot into which he poured water from a flask hanging by his camel’s saddle, and proceeded to brew coffee. Francisco produced some bread and cheese and the two men sat down one on either side of the fire, both warily appreciative of the other’s company.
“Before I begin my tale,” said Francisco, “may I ask you one question?”
“May I tend to the wound on your left arm?”
Abdul Aziz’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “I did not tell you I was wounded.”
“I see how you have tried to hide this thing from me, but I saw how you winced as you threw the last sticks on the fire and I saw the bloodstains on your garments. I pray that you will allow me to cleanse and dress your wound.
“My Lord instructed me as I came forth on this mission, to be ready to cleanse and heal the wounds inflicted upon your people by my countrymen, both in the body and in the soul, and I have supplies to do so, if you will allow me.”
Abdul Aziz seemed to struggle for a few moments with this. Francisco could tell that his pride was not used to accepting the charity of others–especially strangers, and most of all, Spaniards.
“If you do not wish me to do so, that is your choice,” continued Francisco gently. “But I would guess that by tomorrow its state will be worse than today.”
Abdul Aziz thought a moment longer and then slowly nodded his head. At this cue Francisco jumped up and went to his donkey, now contentedly nibbling on some tufts of grass by the side of the wadi. From the saddlebag he drew out a leather pouch. Abdul Aziz complied with as much dignity as he could muster, stretching forth his arm as Francisco rolled back the sleeve to reveal a long cut in the forearm.
“This will hurt a little,” said Francisco, pulling out a bottle of alcohol from the pouch. As gently as he could, he cleaned the wound with the alcohol and some soft gauze cloth. Abdul Aziz remained stoic throughout; obviously unwilling to show any signs of pain or weakness, although Francisco noticed in sympathy that he drew his breath in sharply a few times, and observed a tear trickling from his left eye. The wound cleansed, Francisco took out of the pouch a long strip of bandage and gently wound it around the wounded man’s arm, ripping the two ends and affixing it in place with a knot.
The procedure complete, Abdul Aziz withdrew his arm stiffly. “Thank you,” he said, emotionlessly.
Francisco, realizing that he was still closer to a prisoner than a guest, quietly packed away his medical supplies, returned them to his saddlebag, and meekly resumed his seat by the fire.
At this point the coffee began to boil. Abdul Aziz produced two small clay cups, into which he poured the thick, black fragrant liquid. He offered the first to Francisco who received it with thanks, and then proceeded to place his own on a flat stone by his elbow, to be enjoyed at leisure. Francisco timidly offered bread and cheese, which Abdul Aziz accepted with considerably less hesitation than the medical treatment.
For a little while the two sat in silence, entranced by the dancing flames, the aroma of the coffee and the silence of the vast canopy of stars above them. It was Abdul Aziz who spoke first.
“Señor Francisco, now tell me your story.”
Francisco drew a deep breath and then began with a chuckle. “I never would have dreamed I was going to spend ten years of my life in a monastery. That was the furthest thing from my thoughts and far removed from my strangest dreams. It was Lucia who changed all that. But I must not give her more credit than is due, for I believe it was my Lord who had a hand in it all, looking back. Ah, but I get ahead of myself.
“I was born the son of a poor but honest olive farmer. I say poor, but at least we had our own plot of land, and our olive groves which we harvested each autumn and sold to make enough to keep us through the winter. We had a few cows and sheep and chickens, and of course, our faithful donkey.” He smiled and cast an eye in the direction of the placid beast.
“So, I thought I was destined for the life of a farmer, like my father, that I would marry a good farmer’s daughter, raise seven or ten children, twenty or thirty grandchildren, and live to a ripe old age. That was until the day I fell in love with Lucia.
“Lucia was the daughter of a landowner across the valley. They weren’t that much richer than us, just enough to make her father, arrogant as he was, look down his nose on us. But Lucia, ah, what a gem she was! Long, raven-black hair, enticing brown eyes, a smile like an Easter sunrise, laughter like a lark in spring, and when she sang those wild, sweet Andalusian* melodies, it transported me to Heaven.
“One day we both found ourselves in an orange grove at the bottom of the valley, far away from her parents’ watchful gaze. That was the first time we kissed. Her lips were sweeter to my taste than the best honey, her kisses made me drunker than the finest wine, and I had never felt any softness like the balm of her hands caressing my face.
“I told her that day that I would be hers and only hers and she said she would be mine. We arranged another meeting and continued to see each other clandestinely, but somehow her father found out, for the next thing I knew she was forbidden from seeing me. Not long afterwards she was engaged to marry a rich, pompous landowner’s son from the valley. A pretty girl like Lucia could fetch an excellent dowry, one that an olive-picker like myself would never be able to afford.
“I’ll never forgot the last time that I saw her. It was the day of her wedding. I sneaked up the side of the valley, close to her father’s house, to catch one last glimpse of her. As she came out of the house, dressed in her bridal gown, I was hiding in some bushes. I called her name in a loud whisper. She turned and saw me there for an instant. I never forgot the look of passion and longing in her eyes and the tears that welled up. Then out came her sisters who took her by the arm and escorted her to her father’s carriage.
“I felt as if my heart had been broken into a thousand pieces, which the wind scattered far and wide across the valley. I went home and I didn’t eat or sleep for three days. My mama and papa were so worried about me, kind souls that they are. They called the doctor, who could do nothing for me, for I was not sick. They called the priest, who could not help me, for I would not talk.
“Afterwards, I took a little bag of belongings and went up into the mountains for a week. I stayed up there, drinking from the streams, foraging what food I could from the orchards. I began to pray. I prayed like I never prayed in church before. I talked to God in Heaven like I would to a beloved father. I talked to Jesus like I would to my closest friend. I told Him all about my broken heart. I told Him of my longing, my shattered dream. Finally, in the stillness I began to hear a whispering deep within my soul. It was Jesus’ voice speaking to me. I listened carefully. And do you know what He said to me?”
Abdul raised a questioning eyebrow at the thought of God speaking to one such as this Spaniard. But something kept the questions back. Looking into Francisco’s eyes, he could tell the man was sincere.
Francesco continued. “He said, ‘Did you see that look of longing in Lucia’s eyes as she left you? My eyes look upon you with a love and longing that is one thousand times greater. Yes, and I look upon all My unborn children with such longing.’
“These words stuck fast in my heart like an arrow. I could not remove them. Something about these words cemented the broken pieces of my heart back together, and I saw that there was a reason for it all. At least I knew what it had been like to love and be loved, even though it had been for such a short, tragic time.
“I went home and told my astonished father and mother that I had decided to follow Jesus. I did not know where or how, but soon circumstances led me to the order of the monks of Saint Francis, and I joined a monastery. I had not had much education up till then, though I could read and write, but I was a dedicated student and soon began to prosper in my studies.
“All the loneliness that engulfed me, I struggled to transform into prayers, study, and absorbing of the Holy Scriptures, but in my deepest and most secret confessions I could not fail to admit that barely a day went by when I did not wonder what it would have been like to have been held again in Lucia’s loving arms, to have had another look into her ravishing eyes and to have felt her warm, tender body against mine.”
Francisco paused. “Forgive me if my honesty embarrasses you.”
Abdul Aziz nodded. “Continue. I too am a man. I understand such things.”
“Although my love and passion for Lucia never changed, in time was born a greater love and passion for my beloved Lord, whose words I drank as the honey I had once tasted on the lips of my fair beloved. After long and arduous years of study, I was ready to take the full vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, which I did without so much as a second thought, for I could not bear to return to the valley where images of Lucia’s face gazed out at me from behind every orange tree, where every rippling wheat field was her hair blown in the wind, and where her laughter echoed from every brook.
“So, I was set for a life of abstinence, fasting, prayer, and service to my God. But God knows my heart. I am a passionate, adventurous soul. Though I loved in some sense the cloistered life, yet I felt the call within to do more, to go forth and share this love that I had found in my Lord with others. But I suppressed these thoughts and feelings as desires of my own flesh, contrary to what I felt was the will of God–solitude, abstinence, and silence.
“But something else was happening to me. As I grew more familiar with the mother church, I became increasingly disenchanted with the hierarchy and self-satisfaction, the power plays and cliques. I saw how men who had once dedicated their lives to serve God now spent most of their time serving their own ends. I wondered what had become of the example of our poor founder, Francis of Assisi, who stripped himself of those things and walked out into the hills. I chose the name Francisco for myself, for I wanted to be more like him, more humble and simple in my love for my Lord.
“Then I heard news of what my countrymen were doing to your people. It shocked and disgusted me that we should behave in so barbaric a manner towards our neighbors. And that is when in my heart I began to formulate a desire. After much prayer I went to my father superior and begged him grant me leave to come to these countries to help your people.
“He told me there was no need, and that I was not fitted for such a task as I had no knowledge of the culture or language of the land. So I purposed myself to study Arabic, which as you see I have attempted to do with hitherto not outstanding success. I even studied the Holy Koran, although my father superior warned me that it might draw me into apostasy. But I found much beauty and truth and sincere praise to God in the writings of the Prophet, peace be upon him. After studying Arabic for some time and learning as much as I could about your people, I again asked and was once again denied.
“By this time I began to see that the motives were political. The government did not want to send people to help a country that they wanted to suppress and enslave. My government wanted to impose domination, ignorance, and subjection.
“In despair, I threw myself down again and again before my God and asked Him what to do with these desires that raged in my heart. I thought it was my own sinful self-will trying to impose itself upon His high and holy will for my life. Yet finally, having tried in every way to pour water upon the fire that burned within my soul, after fastings and prayers, confessions, more fastings, more prayers, long hours of communion with my God, I found that the fire that raged inside could not be extinguished.
“So I went to my father superior and requested to be defrocked, to leave the order of the Franciscans. He looked at me gravely, perhaps fearing eternal damnation for my soul, but I only felt the Spirit of my living Lord moving within me, moving me out from those cold stone walls, into the land of living people, who needed to feel the Master’s healing touch.
“One night, after much prayer, I saw a vision of my master, St. Francis. I know not how I knew it was him, but I knew. He came with tears in his eyes, asking me to go forth, as he once went forth to these lands. He spoke to me deep and moving words, which I attempted to write down, and which I carry with me to this day. I could not tell my superiors of the vision lest I be condemned of heresy, but I pleaded more earnestly with the father superior, who finally let me go with a reluctant blessing.
“I went back to my parents’ farm and stayed there for a short while, letting them know how much I loved them. I bade farewell to my brothers and sisters and told them of my plan. Of course they all remonstrated with me not to go, but I could not be dissuaded. I had poured water upon the fire of sacrifice long enough, and it had all been burnt up and the fire still raged. I only requested one thing from my father: Sanchito, our family’s donkey. That he willingly gave me.
“My father and mother’s sad eyes, the day I walked away from the farm, tore my heart almost as much as that last longing gaze from Lucia on her wedding day, but I prayed for strength as I led Sanchito up the hill. And as I turned to wave at them from the top of the hill, with tears streaming down my face, I asked the Lord that the next time we meet, whether it be on this earth or in Paradise, that they would look upon me as a son to be proud of.”
Francisco wiped a tear from his eye on the rough sleeve of his cloak.
“And so I set forth on my mission. To me, my Master’s call was clear, to go forth unto the very people that my countrymen were now oppressing, to do whatever I could to heal the wounds they had caused and to let them know that perhaps not all Spaniards are devils and not all Christians infidels.”
Abdul Aziz stared into the fire for a few long minutes, sipping his coffee meditatively. “I cannot say that I fully understand everything of which you have spoken, as some is contrary to my religion and beliefs,” he said at length. “But I feel in my bones that you wish no ill will towards my people. You will be welcome as my honored guest, as long as God wills for you to stay in our land.
“But tell me, and I ask you this with no sword pointed at your throat”–Abdul Aziz chuckled–“will you not now submit to Islam? You have seen so much hypocrisy as you said, amongst the Christians, and you found much truth and beauty, as you said, in the reading of the Holy Koran.”
Francisco turned his eyes from the fire into which he had been gazing as he spoke, and looked fully into the face of Abdul Aziz. “My friend, I would gladly forsake the trappings and theological prattle of Mother Church, as a butterfly escapes into the sky and leaves behind the empty husk of its cocoon.”
“But?” questioned Abdul Aziz, his eyebrows raised in anticipation.
Francisco looked at him deeply.
“One thing I can never leave, and that is the precious knowledge, friendship and fellowship of my Jesus Who loved me and gave His life for me. As long as I live, I will never leave Him, as He has promised to never leave me.”
Abdul Aziz was silent, realizing that it would not be well to pursue the issue in the face of such conviction. “So be it,” he replied. “These things cannot be forced. Perhaps you will reconsider tomorrow. And now, I suggest that we pray our prayers and turn in for the night, for our journeys have been long and there is much traveling to be done on the morrow.”
“Amen to that, my good friend,” said Francisco with a warm smile.
Abdul Aziz pulled a mat from his camel’s saddlebag, pointed it in the direction of Mecca and began his ritual prayers. Francisco withdrew himself a little way from the fire and also began to pray. He had no idea what effect his testimony had had on the impervious Abdul Aziz, but committed the matter to his Heavenly Father. At least it appeared that his life had been preserved to serve his God for one more day.
Magnificent orange shafts of light were bathing the top of the canyon walls as Francisco awoke. He paused for a moment before rising, to admire the rugged grandeur around him. Abdul Aziz was already awake and stirring the embers of the previous night’s fire, intent on producing some more of the sweet, mud-like coffee. Francisco rose, gathered up his simple bedding and withdrew behind some rocks at the side of the wadi for some moments of solitude with his God. He emerged fifteen minutes later looking considerably more awake, and joined his host who was now completing the morning coffee-making ritual.
The two exchanged polite but cursory greetings in Arabic. Abdul Aziz once again offered coffee to Francisco, who accepted it gratefully. They sat sipping the thick brew, words momentarily made irrelevant by the vast silence engulfing them, which was punctuated only by occasional snorts from the camel and donkey. At length Abdul Aziz spoke.
“We must begin our journey if we want to arrive before being scorched by the noonday sun.”
Francisco nodded in agreement, having undergone such an arduous experience the previous day and not wishing to repeat it. Within minutes their belongings were packed and the two unlikely companions began their ascent up the path into the mountains. The towering walls on either side seemed to unite them in smallness, as if reverence for such a manifestation of the hand of the God, Whom they both revered, somehow made differences of nationality and religion of little importance. It was with reluctance, therefore, that Abdul Aziz broached a subject that he had apparently been pondering.
“Señor Francisco, I told you last night that you would be my guest, and so it is to be. However, I must explain to you that the mood of my people is less than benevolent towards your countrymen.”
“And with good reason,” added Francisco sympathetically.
“I am the sheik of my tribe, but there are others in authority. The Imam, who is the head of the Islamic council in our village and preaches weekly in the mosque, will not take kindly to your presence as a guest amongst us, nor will many others. Life will be difficult for me and no less for you, and you risk being attacked or imprisoned by others who I may not be able to restrain. Therefore, since I wish to entertain you as my guest, I feel it is best for both of us that you appear, initially at least, to be my prisoner. This may be grievous to you, but as my prisoner I am bound to treat you honorably and cause no harm to come unto you. You shall be well fed and cared for, and we shall have the opportunity to consult further in private concerning the matters of which you have spoken. If such a plan does not please you, you may continue on your own without my assistance, but I doubt that you will receive such a hospitable reception as that which I can afford you.”
Francisco smiled as he remembered the details of their first conversation, and then shuddered slightly to imagine what would be a less hospitable reception.
“Within the hour we shall reach the top of the wadi,” Abdul Aziz continued. “The trail will take us through a gap between two mountains and we will come into view of my town. By that time you must let me know your decision. If you come with me I will bind you with ropes and take you in as my prisoner. If you choose not to then you will wait, concealed from view, and let me proceed on for half an hour and then make the rest of your journey.”
Francisco silently grappled with the choices ahead of him. He was still a free man, and he knew that Abdul Aziz would not prevent him even if he turned and headed back down the way he came. The prospect of being bound and led into confinement agitated him, as he passionately loved his freedom. He continued for half an hour in anguish of spirit; the decision loomed as large before him as the surrounding mountains. On the outer fringes of his consciousness, however, came a soft voice.
You have been prepared for this.
Suddenly there came back into Francisco’s mind a passage of Scripture, one that he had claimed as his theme when he’d set out on his pilgrimage.
“I, therefore the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called with all lowliness and meekness, longsuffering, forbearing one another in love. Endeavoring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace*.”
Prisoner of the Lord. Lowliness and meekness. Longsuffering. The bond of peace. The anguished question seemed to surge up from the depths of his soul and echo around the unfathomable heights of Heaven: “Lord is this the path You have chosen for me?”
By the time the crevice between the hills before them widened into a large peninsula of blue sky, Francisco needed no further assurance. Meekly he turned to Abdul Aziz and presented his hands to be bound. Francisco had known Abdul Aziz for less than twenty hours, but he recognized that his hands were being bound with an uncharacteristic gentleness. At last the dark Moroccan eyes met his, and Abdul Aziz said softly, as if from the depths of his being. “I will not forget what you are doing for my people.”
Having spoken thus he grabbed the reins of the donkey and the cord with which he had bound Francisco’s wrists, wrapping them firmly about his own wrist. With a flourish he mounted his camel and set off through the pass that led into the valley beyond.
It was not long before a vastly different terrain greeted Francisco’s eyes. Jerada was an oasis watered by springs from the mountains that caused what would have been desert to be transformed into a dusty green valley. It would not have been called lush by the standards that Francisco was used to, but it was well irrigated and the signs and sounds of life abounded. At times they were enveloped by the thick, sweet aroma of figs from trees on either side of their descending pathway. From an unseen source emanated the sound of running water, a rippling echo that seemed to cascade around the valley, accompanied by the low drone of flies and bees. Olive groves were nestled along the hills on either side, and bunches of wild grapes hung untidily from unkempt vines beside the path.
Abdul Aziz reached down and with the point of his sword he deftly cut one of these bunches, motioning for Francisco to pick it up. Francisco did so and offered it to his host who accepted and then cut another bunch and motioned for Francisco to take it. Rather messily on account of his bound wrists, Francisco began to eat the grapes as they proceeded along the path, enjoying their sweet nectar. Captivity so far was not unpleasant.
The whole scene around them had an air of idyllic laziness, which seemed to belie both the impending danger and the suffering that had already been inflicted on the people. Francisco thought the scene was not entirely unlike the valley of his childhood. In the center of the valley ahead of them he could see the squat white buildings of Abdul Aziz’s hometown. A minaret* capped by a crescent moon reached up into the sky above the roofs of the houses. The valley opened out into a wide plain, which was framed by mountains to the north, their silhouette dimly visible in the morning haze. The mountains to their rear through which the narrow path had taken them formed a natural barrier to the south and west.
Before long they drew near to the town. As they approached, shouts of recognition began to greet Abdul Aziz from the fields by either side of the road. It wasn’t long before he was approached by horsemen from the city. Francisco understood a few of the initial greetings. However, although an occasional familiar word appeared, he was mostly lost in the dialect spoken by the men, which was different from the classic Arabic he had studied. The riders paid scant attention to Francisco, whose presence Abdul Aziz explained dismissively. The two riders drew their horses up on either side of Abdul Aziz’s camel and they proceeded on into the city, Francisco and his donkey trailing behind. From what he could gather the conversation was about the most recent battles and the state of affairs in the northern part of the country. There was concern on the men’s faces and in their voices; their mood was far from festive.
As they entered the city a bearded muezzin*, clad in a long white robe with a dark red fez* on his head, was giving the call to midday prayers from the minaret to their right. The three men ahead of Francisco continued their earnest conversation, seemingly unaware. A small group of mostly barefoot boys wearing miniature versions of their fathers’ robes thronged about the travelers, as if eager to catch any snippet of news about the progress of the war as well as to welcome the local hero Abdul Aziz back from his conflicts. Some looked with curiosity, but welcome absence of animosity at the strangely-clad prisoner.
At length Abdul Aziz halted his camel outside a square stone building that resembled the others in the town but was slightly larger and graced by two large date palms overhanging the front courtyard. He descended from his camel and led it through an ornate arched gate into the courtyard. Francisco followed meekly behind.
The house was similar in design to the Spanish haciendas that Francisco was familiar with. He could see through into an inner courtyard, which was bordered on all four sides by rooms. He could just see the doorways, hung with brightly colored beaded curtains. There was a flurry of activity from inside the house. A black servant dressed in a white robe emerged and took the reins of the camel, followed by a bevy of children of various ages–at least ten that Francisco could count–who all enthusiastically attacked their father, competing for his hugs like a swarm of bees.
Francisco noticed some of the bead curtains rippling slightly, as shadowy figures from within perused the arrival of the man of the house and his unexpected companion. He guessed them to be the womenfolk, wives, and older daughters. One of the curtains opened wider than the others and the head and torso of a young woman appeared. Probably one of the sheik’s daughters, thought Francisco. In spite of the veil she wore, Francisco could sense femininity and poise, and felt himself the subject of a bold, curious, but not altogether unfriendly look from a pair of dark, flashing eyes. Francisco flushed slightly at finding himself so closely observed in his humbled state, and stared in embarrassment at a spot on the ground a few feet in front of him, hoping that his blush was not noticed.
The effusive* round of greetings now completed, Abdul Aziz motioned to one of the men who had accompanied him into the town, both obviously some kind of deputies or aides. He gave some brief instructions, nodding in Francisco’s direction. The deputy took the rope which bound Francisco’s wrists and jerked it cursorily.
“Follow me,” he said gruffly in Arabic.
He led Francisco to a low white stone building on the other side of the outer courtyard, and motioned for him to go inside. Francisco found himself in a clean but simple room, with a narrow opening for a window. The room with its earthen floors and thick stone walls was surprisingly cool in spite of the fervent midday heat outside.
The deputy motioned for Francisco to kneel on the earthen floor, then withdrew his scimitar from its scabbard to the left of his belt. Francisco’s heart missed a beat. He had taken Abdul Aziz’s word for his safety, but sudden apprehension flooded his mind. What if Abdul Aziz’s desire to appear strong before his subordinates has overcome his initial professions of hospitality and good will? What was the subject of the long and serious conversation between the men? Has my fate been decided in their secret counsels?
Without a word the deputy seized Francisco’s left hand and with one deft stroke of his sword sliced through the cords that bound his wrists. The ropes fell to the floor.
“Welcome,” said the man in Arabic. “You are now the guest of Abdul Aziz Suleiman Mohammed Ali. Please remain within your quarters. Refreshments will be served to you in due course.”
A mixture of adrenaline and relief flooded through Francisco’s veins and he broke out into a cold sweat.
“Thank you,” he whispered hoarsely.
As the man turned to go, Francisco asked in the best stumbling Arabic he could muster whether he could be permitted access to the saddlebags of his donkey. The man nodded and led him out to where the donkey was tethered under an awning next to the room. Francisco retrieved some books and writing implements from the saddlebag under the watchful gaze of the deputy, then returned meekly to his room. The door closed shut behind him and a bolt slid into place.
It was to Francisco’s benefit that he was no stranger to the monastic life, as the room in which he found himself was not dissimilar in dimensions or furnishings to his room in the Franciscan monastery. A simple, low wooden cot adorned one side of the room, and to his joy there was a rough-hewn wooden table and chair underneath the vertical oblong window. It was there that he almost immediately settled down to his writing and study, having spent a few moments in praise to his heavenly Father for yet more mercies. Francisco had determined to keep a journal of his pilgrimage, which needed a considerable amount of filling in since he’d been in constant travel.
Far from monastic, however, was the sight presented to him approximately an hour later when the door to his room swung open suddenly, and two servants appeared carrying dishes laden with food. It was a meal Francisco had not seen the likes of for many long days. Large pieces of round flat bread were adorned with generously sized kebabs of lamb and chicken, accompanied by a steaming bowl of couscous heaped with pieces of lamb and vegetables. There was also a platter bearing a large assortment of dates, figs, and apricots.
Francisco hastily cleared the books that he was writing in from the table, as the servants carefully arranged the dishes. As they turned to go, the same graceful form that he had glimpsed through the beaded curtain appeared in the doorway. Her hair was covered with a veil, but her face was not and Francisco could not help noticing that her features were strikingly beautiful.
“Peace be upon you,” she began confidently in surprisingly good English. “I am Fatima, eldest daughter of Abdul Aziz Suleiman Mohammed Ali. My father has instructed me to inquire whether everything is to your liking,”
Francisco smiled broadly. “I am but a humble beggar,” he began, “but your father treats me like a prince.”
“Such is the hospitality of our people,” she replied with a quiet intensity and no trace of a smile.
“Even to an enemy, a Spaniard such as myself?” ventured Francisco.
“If you were our enemy,” said Fatima with undiminished intensity, “I do not think that my father would treat you this way. But is it not even written in your Holy Book, love your enemies?”
“Yes indeed,” replied Francisco, “and your father lives these words better than many of my countrymen who profess themselves to be followers of the Bible. Please convey my sincerest thanks to him.”
“I will,” said Fatima with an air of authority, which indicated she was well able to answer in her father’s stead. Once more she cast the deep black pearls of her eyes towards Francisco’s in a brief but searching gaze. Then with a wave of her hand to the servants and a swirl of her long flowing garments she turned on her heel and left the room, the servants following. Once more the bolt slid shut.
Francisco turned to the banquet laid before him.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies,” he said to himself with a smile. After a brief but heartfelt benediction he began to attack the contents of the platters with relish.
For the next three days Francisco remained thus in his cell, spending much time with his books, and in meditation and prayer. Benefiting from three bountiful meals a day made fasting out of the question for the moment. Still, his soul burned within him to be free to go forth and minister to the people, but as the solid wooden door and stone walls prevented any thought of escape, as well an invisible force seemed to be binding him spiritually, even testing him. In prayer he was dimly aware of a desperate contest taking place for his future ministry, in which he was for some reason disallowed from being an active participant, except through prayer. He would only find out later from Abdul Aziz how fiercely the battle for his life had raged.
*monolith: pillar of rock
*elegy: a mournful poem, or musical lament written for someone who has died
*wadi: a steep-sided water course, through which water flows only after heavy rainfalls
*Saracen: an Arab
*asceticism: self-denying way of life
*Salaam aleykum: Peace be unto you
*Wa aleykum salaam: And peace be upon you
*accrue: to gather together
*Andalusia: autonomous region of southern Spain
*minaret: mosque tower
*muezzin: man who calls Muslims to pray
*fez: a brimless felt hat shaped like a cone with a flat top
*effusive: unrestrained in expressing feelings