The camel kneeled and backed up before settling down under a date tree where Rizzaq climbed off from the space behind her hump. His rump was slightly sore from sitting on the camels back for weeks, travelling into the desert where Ilaalat, The Lady of Flowers, tended to her grove. He stretched out and removed his pack from the camels back, then handed the rope tied around her long neck to her handler, a boy by the name of Ammar, who led her away.
He looked around him and saw a busy place. There were low buildings, big and small, erected around the trunks of trees, with walls made of woven leaves, and roofs from bent branches laced together, thatched with trimmings. Outside on mats were groups of people, mostly women and young children, weaving baskets with leaves soaking in large tubs of water. Some were crushing seeds and there was the sound of chattering voices that carried on a slight breeze through the feathery fronds. As far as he could see were date trees growing from irrigated rows out of the scrubby sandy earth. Their scaly golden trunks bending with long leaf tops fanning out, touching their brothers and sisters over the pathways, formed a shady archway to walk through. Ladders were leaning against the trunks and he saw young boys up in the trees, picking clusters of fruit and passing them to the men below. The sight filled him with a sense of serenity, far removed from the electric bustle of Baseerah.
The boy, Ammar, returned gesturing with a wave of his hand that he follow. They walked toward the buildings, where curious eyes turned toward him, and the chattering dwindled slightly as he passed by, picking up as he went around the back. Here were more buildings. These were taller, with flat roofs, made with a mixture of mud that had baked hard and yellow under the heat of clear blue skies. They had windows carved out and covered with loosely woven mats. Beyond them and below, in the distance, a wadi meandered on its way with acacia trees growing from the slopes where goats and camels grazed. Ammar led him to a large courtyard, where there was a well, a garden of vegetables and flowers, and tending them three women. They turned, sensing his presence though Rizzaq was certain neither his feet nor the boys’ made any noise.
Ammar spoke to the women in a dialect he did not understand; their sharp eyes, rimmed with kohl, stared at him while they listened. Then Ammar left him standing there by himself.
“Welcome Rizzaq, Ammar has told us you were sent here by an old friend. Please, help yourself to water from the well, and then we will speak. I am Ilaalat, these are my sisters, Uzzra and Minaal.”
Rizzaq was surprised. He had been expecting an old woman, but the Lady of Flowers was neither young nor old. Her skin was smooth and unlined, her dark brown eyes gleamed brightly, and the tendrils of hair that had slipped out from under her headwrap were glossy and black. He realized all three of the women appeared untouched by age as he lowered a bucket into the well, listening for the splash echoing up. He waited then pulled it up and dipped his hands inside, feeling the water with his fingers. He splashed some on his face, brought cupped palms to his lips and drank, enjoying the cool sweet taste. When he was done he returned to the women.
A large mat was laid out on the ground, with a platter of watermelon and fresh dates, a jug of herbed yogurt, warm flatbread, feta cheese, and a bowl of fragrant lentil stew. The women were sitting cross-legged around the edges and Minaal handed him an earthen dish with portions arranged on it, Uzzra poured him a cup of yogurt and Ilaalat gestured that he begin. Rizzaq ate and the women watched, the quiet interrupted with tinkling laughter carried by breeze, the cooing of doves, and animals moving about. When he was done eating the women filled their dishes and ate their meal. Rizzaq sipped herbed yogurt slowly. The women ate quietly, and finished with their drinks. Rizzaq opened his bundle and brought out a package wrapped in turmeric colored cotton, tied with blue ribbons. He handed it to Ilaalat.
“A gift for you Lady, it would give me great joy if you accept it.”
“Oh Ilaalat! A present, open it let’s see what the boy has brought!” Minaal cooed, her eyes sparkling.
Ilaalat untied the ribbons and laid the cloth on the mat. A smile curved at the corners of her lips. “I accept your gifts Rizzaq, thank you.”
Her sisters lifted packets of seeds from the bundle and looked them over.
Minaal wagged her finger at Rizzaq, “Clever clever, you’ve brought seeds for my sister, good good! She’s keeping them; maybe we’ll keep you too! What do you think sisters?”
Uzzra pinched Rizzaq’s cheek, “Hmm, smooth skin, firm and young, should we keep you and your seeds too, hmm hmm, maybe you want to plant some, hmm, our garden has plenty of room?”
The women squealed with laughter and Rizzaq blushed.
“What, we’re not to your liking?” Minaal asked coyly.
He cleared his throat, “Ladies, while you are all beyond compare, my heart is another’s. It is for her that I set out here, not knowing what else to do at the time.
“Tell us,” Ilaalat said. Her sisters ceased their giggling and they listened intently.
“Two years ago I met a woman in Kuchkhaas, her name is Zuljabeenah, and right away we knew we were a pair. When I asked her father for her hand in marriage, he questioned me to determine my suitability. He found me wanting and declared that since I was the son of the son of the son of Bahaadur Shaah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, and it was my father who had commissioned the construction of the tallest building in the world, from the top of which four years ago a hammer had been dropped that had not made it to ground, he would give his permission when I brought him the hammer.
I travelled to Baseerah then, and sat for two years waiting for the hammer under Al-Zubair. Have you seen it? It rises from a squat bottom slowly tapering into the sky where it disappears from sight into clouds, shooting for unseen galaxies and vistas beyond ordinary sight. It is bejeweled and strung with lights, illuminating most of the state of Baseerah with its brilliance from dusk till dawn. The residents discovered the discomfort all that dazzling light generates when it spilled into their homes while they were in bed, ready to sleep. Special curtains were manufactured, woven thicker than ordinary ones, dyed with stronger consistencies of madder, indigo, walnut, and mud; even so these blinds merely filtered and muted the brightness. Al-Zubair also houses panels, arrays and sheets of solar panels that soak in sunlight and turn it into electricity, stored within batteries contained by the building. The electricity is shared with the inhabitants of the city, freely, and they enjoy the benefits it provides more than the discomfort, so they’ve become used to the glow through their windows, the flashing reflection on the coastal waters.
Here I sat and waited for the hammer. I prayed while I waited. I prayed to The Maker to bring it down soon, to hasten its delivery that I may be delivered from waiting, that I may pick it up and return to Haldee Raam and claim my bride, beauteous Zuljabeenah of the doe eyes and ruby red lips! I walked around the building to see whether it had landed, praying the whole time. I turned my gaze upward when the skies were clear and blue, praying that I’d catch a glimpse of it. The people of Baseerah knew my story. Some came by with food, some to talk, some with fresh clothes, some to see whether I was still there. Tourists included me in their pictures to show they had visited the tallest building in the world, where sat a holy man in prayer, reputed to speak the language of doves! It was through the generosity of strangers that my needs were cared for.
One day I was doing rounds of the building and saw an old man in white baggy pants and white baggy shirt, with silver hair on his head bending down to pick something up from the concrete ground by his sandaled feet. My heart began to beat thudthudthudthud thud.
“Babaji, what have you there? Is it a hammer?” I asked him.
The old man turned around and looked at me through blue-grey eyes. His face was a wadi, grooved with curves and lines, skin sprinkled with brown spots that dipped into the creases. His silver eyebrows were bushy, and below a large bulbous red nose was a wispy mustache that covered his lips and joined a slender salt and pepper beard that drooped to his chest.
“A hammer? No, it is a piece of paper blown by the wind or thrown by a careless hand that I picked up,” he showed me a crumpled scrap, “Have you lost a tool young man?”
“No Babaji, I’m waiting for a hammer to fall from up there.” I pointed up with a finger.
The old mans’ gaze followed my finger as he said, “There’s nothing up there son, even the top of this building disappears where? Nowhere. How will a hammer fall from nowhere?”
“It will fall, it must! The hammer was dropped four years ago, after the building was complete, and eventually it will fall, all things do! Where else would it have gone?!”
The old man stroked his beard and shut his eyes for a moment then he spoke, “Come, let us sit together. I am called Uzair, I have come to visit my grandchildren here in Baseerah. They insisted I have a look at Al-Zubair, so here I am. Grand as it is I am more interested in this hammer you mentioned. Is it one of those magic hammers, once wielded by mighty gods, forged by dwarves deep inside the mountains of the Northmen? Please, tell me the story of this hammer that you are waiting for as we pass time.”
I introduced myself and we sat cross-legged facing one another.
“I must confess I know nothing about this hammer or where it came from. Is it a magic hammer? Surely it is, for what ordinary hammer drops for four years without even showing handle or head? Look up there, no sight of the thing! As to who dropped it, I don’t know that either. My father commissioned this building. It is the tallest in the entire world and to show how much space it spans in height, upon its completion he ordered a hammer be dropped from the top.
Two years ago on my travels, I met Zuljabeenah, and knew right away she is the light of my life, the beat that strums in my heart, the softness of a petal bearing dew. When I asked her father permission to wed her, assuring him that she would have every comfort afforded, as I am the son the son of the son of Bahaadur Shaah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, he scoffed. I told him about this building, how grand it is, and his final word on the matter was that he would gladly give us his blessing when the hammer dropped. You see my dilemma Uzairbaba? Two years I’ve been praying and waiting, but where is the hammer? How long must I wait? I ask the doves to fly high and they return cooing to me, noo hammer noo hammer noo, what to do?”
“It is quite a situation you are in young sir,” Uzair spoke softly, nodding his head, “Were I in your place, that is it, just so, I would think about what could be done . . . after all it seems as though you have practiced patience with great perseverance, combined faithfully with prayer, perhaps action is what is called for?”
“Yes, but what kind of action? I cannot think of anything!”
“There is one”, Uzair said slowly, his blue-grey eyes filmy, “A lady, The Lady of Flowers, she may have an answer to your question, hmm, yes, The Lady of Flowers, she will know. It has been a very long time since we’ve met, but she will remember me. Come with me and I will tell you the way to where she lives.”
“But, what if the hammer falls while I’m gone, then what? All will be lost!”
“Well,” said Uzzair, “That is a possibility, a risk I suppose, it’s up to you how you choose.”
I considered this before finally deciding to go with him.
Uzair chuckled when I gave him my answer. “Good good, let us go to my daughters’ house where you can bathe and prepare yourself for your journey.”
When I set out in this direction I didn’t know what to do. Uzair indicated that perhaps you would have an answer to my question of what is to be done. As I travelled here I wondered about the hammer, where had it gone? Was there somewhere else I needed to search for it? What could be done? I had waited for it to fall, I would have waited a lifetime for it to fall, but I realized I don’t want to wait a lifetime to be with Zuljabeenah, I want to live a lifetime with her!
One night as I slept I dreamed the hammer had indeed fallen. It was in a rocky pool, underwater, and I saw myself swimming and picking it up. There were turtles swimming nearby, and a giant jellyfish floated past me. When I woke I knew what to do, but my dilemma was this: where is this place underwater? The ocean is vast! As we travelled on, in the haze of heat rising from the sands I saw a place, a beach where Zuljabeenah was running into the water; she climbed on a turtle and disappeared under waves. I recognized the beach; it has a particular stretch with a mound of rocks filled with holes and pools that jut out into the water, very distinct, as it makes the shape of a dolphin. This place is not only back in the direction of Baseerah, but on the other side of it! At first I wanted to turn around and head there right away, then I saw this grove beyond the haze and I knew in my heart that I must visit here first. So here I am.”
The three women nodded and it sounded as though they spoke as one.
“Tomorrow Ammar will escort you back to your destination. We are glad to have made your acquaintance, however briefly. These seeds you’ve brought are appreciated, we have need of them as they give plants that the children drink in teas when they have a stomach ailment. The seeds we gathered last year had grown mold from excess moisture, so it is fortunate that you brought these to us. When you and Zuljabeenah unite, you are welcome to return and stay a while, I teach the young men how to pollinate the dates that they may give fruit. You may learn as well, for it is hand pollination that they require. Now we must return to our work, make yourself comfortable.”
Illalat rang a bell, then she, Minaal, and Uzzra rose from the mat and returned to the plants. Shortly thereafter a young girl appeared and began clearing away the platters. Rizzaq wandered from the courtyard and walked around meeting others, before a call to prayer sang out. He joined in the evening prayer under the setting sun, a bright orange-pink blossom on the horizon, after which the people of the grove all gathered to dine.