Gravestone from the Taifa Kingdom, Almería, Spain, 1044

 

Gravestone
Gravestone, 1044, Museum of Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum, image from Museum With No Frontiers

The girl visited the grave on the hill nearly every day. It was late in the summer and the grasses and shrubs—the whole earth it seemed—were tawny under the bright, golden sun. The dry wind tugged at her veil, allowing tendrils of dark hair to escape and lash at her face. She always came alone. Sometimes she brought her small cloth bag, clutched tightly in her hands, but on this day her hands were empty, so she ran her fingertips along the plants at the edge of the path, pulling off leaves here and there and letting them fall to the ground as she walked.

A twig snapped in a nearby stand of trees, and she turned back nervously, ever worried about being followed. No one could know that she was visiting the grave of Djabir, son of Mohammed al-Khashab. Always on alert, her movements were graceful and meditative but also taut. She seemed catlike in her attentiveness to her surroundings and her readiness to run away if she encountered another person.

At the grave, though, her demeanor changed and she let herself relax. She was rooted, committed to being there. She payed homage to this man she had loved—and been loved by—in secret. Some days she did weep, though silently, for she knew that she should refrain from histrionics lest the sound alert people to her presence at the young man’s grave. On this day she sat quietly near the gravestone, a silent companion, neither weeping nor talking. She reached forward and touched the delicate carving of the stone, tracing her fingers around the elegant horseshoe arch that resembled the forms she had seen in the impressive mosques nearby.

“He witnessed that there is no God other than God,” the gravestone said, “and that Mohammed is God’s Prophet, and that Paradise and Hell, the Resurrection and the Hour of Judgement, all truly exist.”

She thought about Djabir who had been small but strong, proud but warm. She remembered his big smile and tried to picture what his paradise might be like. Across the way, the rugged mountains were flecked with spots of bright color—the orange-rust of the exposed earth on the bare hillside, the delicate purples and pinks and whites of the wildflowers, and a warm, shimmering gold reflected by the sunlight in the shallow stream below. Could Djabir find himself in a paradise more lovely than this, she wondered?

His faith believed in a paradise after death, but she believed no such thing. Her rabbi certainly never spoke of an eternal paradise that waited to welcome her after death. She did, however, believe the soul was immortal. In fact, believe is too weak a word. She knew it just as certainly as she knew the sun would set that evening. As certainly as she knew the weather would soon cool with the arrival of autumn. And it was so with Djabir’s soul. She knew he was in the air around her. He was in the hot summer sun that pricked her skin. In the bees that hovered over the wildflowers in the meadow. In the breeze that whipped her hair across her face.

Across the meadow, she suddenly heard the low murmur of voices mingling with the whispering of leaves in a nearby copse of trees. Men. Two, maybe three. And so she ran down into the ravine, seeming to disappear just like the cat she was coming to think of herself as. She clambered over the hot, sun-bathed rocks and back toward her family’s small home. Back to her dhimmi neighborhood—a neighborhood for the so-called protected people. Protected of course was a euphemism. More than anything she was taxed. Subject.

But Djabir had seen her as an equal, and it felt good to have him and his memory as her secret. It gave her power over those many who controlled her daily life. Her comings and goings. Which is why, even these many months after Djabir’s death, she continued to visit his grave. She could still picture the spark in his eyes. How he had been able to see the essence of who she was. It had made her feel free.

Thinking of this, she knew his gravestone proclaimed the truth. She knew that both paradise and hell did indeed truly exist. Hell was the world created by many bad men on Earth. It was all too easy to find. But Paradise . . . Paradise was in the hillside she visited and in the late-summer sunshine and in the fragrant wildflowers. It was in the memories of Djabir that she carried with her always.

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