Searching for the story in my heart

MURAD the storyteller told me he had never been able to see. He could tell light from dark and could make out vague shapes, but that was about all.

“I have never had eyesight to hold me back,” he said when we met the next day at Café Agana on the main square.

I asked how he managed to get around without the power of vision. The storyteller let out a croak of laughter. “How do you survive in a world so limited by one sense?” he replied. “Close your eyes, and your heart will open.”

The waiter brought cups of milky hot chocolate. It made a change from the bitter cafe noir. We sat at the edge, me peering down at the hubbub of Jemaa al Fna, and Murad listening to it all.

I told him that I wanted to find the story in my heart, that I was searching but had no idea how to go about it. The storyteller sipped his hot chocolate and sat in silent concentration.

“You have to trust yourself,” he said eventually. “It’s in there, but you must believe that it really is...”

“Do you believe?”

Murad dabbed a finger to his eye. “Of course I believe,” he said.

“Have you ever searched for the story in your heart?”

The storyteller gazed over at me, his cataracts reflecting the bright winter light. “I searched for it for years,” he said, “like a madman hunting for a grain of salt in a bucket of sand. My neighbour’s son agreed to act as my eyes, my fifth sense. We travelled from Marrakech up to the tip of Tangier, down the coast and inland, across the Atlas and into the Sahara. When we had reached dunes as high as mountains, we turned around and retraced our steps. On the journey, I asked every man, woman, and child we passed if they could tell me the story in my heart. They made fun of me, a stupid blind man led by a boy, looking for a part of him he couldn’t see.”

“Did you find the story?”

Murad paused.

Without stories humans cannot live; they only exist. And every individual has a story residing in their heart. Only by finding that story would the individual be able to find meaning and understanding in life. In his book, In Arabian Nights (2008), author Tahir Shah, an Anglo-Afghan, tells about bringing his wife and two young children to live in Casablanca, Morocco.

The author spent much of his time in a rundown café, drinking thick, black coffee with henpecked men, all hiding from their wives. In Morocco, henpecked men were all married to clones of the same alpha female, beefy and fearless, says Tahir. Inside the dark, smoky interior of the café, the men were thankfully safe from persecution, as they exchanged stories with one another.

Many of these stories have a clever twist, but mostly they reflect various facets of the human condition. Consider the story of Latif the Thief:

“Who’s Latif?”

“The patron of all thieves, a kind of hero, a mentor.”

“Was he Moroccan?”

“I'm not sure. But that isn’t important. You see, thieves are very proud of him.”

Ottoman stirred his coffee, jerked out the teaspoon.

“Tell me about him,” I said.

Ottoman said:

It had been a long time since Latif the Thief had stolen from anyone at all. He had run out of cash and was so hungry he felt as if he was about to drop dead. The more he thought about eating, the hungrier and the fainter he became. Then, he had an idea. He looked around his den and found a sheet of paper, a pen, and a metal cup. Scooping them up into his robe, he ran out and was soon at the vast plaza in front of the palace. When no one was looking, he wrote a sign on the paper, placed the cup beside it, and lay down a few inches away. The sign read: Who will give a coin to help bury a poor blind beggar?

Latif kept as still as he could, and listened as coins fell into his cup from the hands of passing donors. All morning the charitable tossed in money, feeding Latif’s greed. Then, just before noon, the king rode out of the palace. As his carriage passed the parade ground, he saw the supposed corpse, the sign, and the tin cup. He called the coachman to halt the horses. ‘What low times we live in,’ he thought, ‘if a poor blind beggar cannot be given a decent burial!’

He called for his imam and ordered him to take the body to his home, wash it, and ensure it was given a suitable send-off. ‘Once you have done this,’ said the king, ‘you may come to the palace and collect a purse of gold from the treasurer for your services.’

The imam dutifully removed the corpse as Latif struggled to stay limp. He took it through the town on a cart to his own home. Once there, he began to strip it and to prepare for the ritual washing. But after a few minutes he noticed there was no more soap in the house. ‘I will have to go to the market and buy more soap,’ he said to himself, putting on his coat and leaving the body alone.

No sooner had he gone, than Latif the Thief ran to the imam’s cupboard and helped himself to the grandest robe and the weightiest turban he could find. He put them on and went directly to the palace, where he sought out the royal treasurer. ‘I am the imam to whom the king has promised a purse of gold,’ he said.

The treasurer counted out the money himself. ‘Please sign here,’ said the treasurer, ‘to acknowledge you have received the funds.’

‘Are times so desperate that you do not trust anyone, even a humble imam?’ said Latif, putting on his most haughty voice.

‘Forgive me, Your Reverence,’ replied the treasurer, ‘but there are so many thieves on the loose.’

‘I quite understand your precautions,’ said Latif, taking a gold coin from the purse and sliding it across the desk to the treasurer. ‘You have been of great service,’ he said.

‘Don't mention it, said the official, pulling his own purse out from layer upon layer of cloth, and slipping the tip inside. ‘If only there were more honest men such as yourself in the kingdom,’ he said, placing his gold-filled purse on his desk.

‘Alas,’ exclaimed Latif on his way out, as he snatched the treasurer’s purse, ‘but there are so many thieves about!’

– Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights, A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams (2008)

IF YOU WANT to know life’s deepest secrets, seek out stories, says Tahir. His favourites are the various episodes from Alf Layla wa Layla, A Thousand and One Nights. Most of us have heard some of the tales – Sinbad the Sailor, Ali Baba, etc.

These tales worked in a special way, diverting the mind while passing on a kind of inner knowledge, was how Tahir’s father explained the power of storytelling to the author and his sisters when they were young. Listen to the stories and they would act like an instruction manual to the world, his father would repeat again and again to the children.

In Arabian Nights, A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams cost me $43.90 from Borders. The bookshop has since closed.

Tahir’s father was Idris Shah, well-known for a series of books introducing the Sufis and their hoard of mystical stories. I love Idris Shah’s Sufi books which I have read since secondary school days. – Francis Chin

Map of Morocco | Contents Page

In Arabian Nights by Tahir Shah