I stepped across the threshold of his humble abode and greeted him. I chanced upon the butler, who was carrying a bowl of dates and a glass of milk on a tray.
“Welcome to the sanctuary of the prophet Khaled.”
“Yes, don’t you know? He is the Arabic prophet who was given the cold shoulder by the people he was committed to guide.” He didn’t care to provide me with context so that I could cushion the brick he had just dropped on me. Instead, he left me to my own devices and went to minister to the rest of the guests.
I had been on my way to the Algerian city of Biskra to buy the dates my wife had asked for—or rather, entreated me to fetch her. She had declared that she had been craving them for quite a while already and reminded me of the perils of leaving pregnancy whims unanswered. “Before you know it, the child is born with a skin patch the color and texture of a date on his or her forehead.”
Upon my return home with a Tupperware container full of dates, still somewhat shocked about my recent adventure and latest discovery, I turned to my iPad to search for information on this alleged prophet. To my surprise, bingo, I tracked him down. The story went that he had sent his daughter, Mahya, to pay a visit to the Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet had stretched his own cape out on the ground so that she could advance toward him barefoot. He had welcomed her as if she were his own flesh and blood.
At some point, she had heard him mutter, “There is no god but the one true God.”
She had then remarked, “My father used to say the same thing.”
Thereupon, the Prophet had stated, “Your father is also a prophet—just like me—but he has gone unnoticed by his people.”
– – –
Finally, the plane landed in Japan. I was really excited about the opportunity I had been given to visit this country after having spent two years learning Japanese and eating sushi ad nauseam even though each piece had cost a fortune. I had just arrived in another world. I went with my coworkers to visit the colorful Senso-ji temple. The sight left me stuck for words.
I could hardly mask my wonderment when I saw how the people bowed before the smiley statue of the Buddha. It showed that their faith in him was genuine. A young woman walking at a leisurely gait approached me and invited me in broken Arabic to partake of some hot miso soup.
“Here, cheers! That’s what people say in Egypt, right?”
I grinned in disbelief. Someone had just spoken to me in Arabic in the very heart of Tokyo! Tomoko had studied Arabic in Egypt. I tried to carry on the conversation in Japanese but quickly stumbled across my own linguistic incompetence.
“If I may ask, how come that at odds with the rest of the here assembled you seem to look at the Buddha with a glint of devotion in your eyes? I have been studying you from a distance for a while now, and to me, you’ve been looking at him with the deference people accord to the things that earn their respect because of what they signify.”
She skillfully parried my query by bombarding me with a battery of her own questions.
“All right, Tomoko, you beautiful girl. Certainly, your name does not falsely advertise you. Allow me to tell you a story. I spent five years enrolled as a grant-holding student in an Algerian university. One day by serendipity, I wound up visiting the sanctuary of a sheikh who in the course of his life turned out to be a prophet of sorts called Khaled bin Sinan.
“The realization that I had failed to mind a prophet from my own religion and cultural heritage caused my understanding of the world to tumble like a house of cards. Suddenly, I recognized that I knew very little about the history that primes us to divine what the present entails. So, how can we be sure of how big the world actually is? What do you think about the fact that on the one hand we humans supposedly all share one common world to call home, but on the other hand, we have split it into many different worlds that are incompatible with one another?”
I spent an hour expatiating on how there may be some among the many luminaries that have been canonized or declared paragons of virtue by ancient religions other than Islam from all around the world who might have risen in their time to meet the bar set by God to deserve to be deemed Islamic prophets today. Say, for example, Buddha, Confucius, Zarathustra, Mani . . .
“Tomoko, you should know that according to our religion more than three hundred apostles and twenty-five hundred prophets were brought into this world. Where have they been hiding? I don’t believe that God revealed himself only to us Muslims, for when I compare the devotion with which followers of other faiths bow before their gods to the devotion Muslims show their God, it is difficult to tell the difference.”
I left her totally flabbergasted, as I had been after the valuable experience I had enjoyed in Biskra several years ago. Tomoko had been on her way somewhere else, just as I myself had been back then.
“You know what, Samir? I’d love to disagree but cannot see a flaw in the argument you just made. It’s touching to see that the Buddha holds a fascination for you. It makes me feel appreciated—like a city whose secrets you’d like to uncover. What you just told me about humankind, its heritage, and the prophets has made me feel a good deal closer to you. You have disarmed my heart, and now I am bending over backward to suppress the urge I feel to fall into your arms.”
I flew back to Cairo after I finished my work assignment in Japan. “I’ll die if you decide to stay there,” my mother had notified me after a pretty heated fight over the phone. Hence, I had left, snubbing my heart’s desires. After a while, my wife noticed that something had gone terribly wrong with our relationship and subsequently asked me why we had become so distant with each other. I was clueless about how to answer.
Tomoko had stolen my heart. I dreamt of her at night and fantasized about finding her on the other side of every corner I turned when I was out of the house during the daytime. I pictured her smiling every night before going to bed. Because of her, I was obsessed with everything Japanese. I would only eat sushi in real Japanese restaurants. The physical attrition I suffered from fearing on a daily basis that I might have lost her forever left me impaired. I had sustained an injury shaped like a cavernous hole that could not be plugged.
There is a less traveled route that takes you through Biskra Province to an alternate universe. I know it only too well. Following it, I saw her taste a date and greet the host. She had not aged a day. The real-life replica of the girl who had visited me in my dreams now stood before me. Tomoko had come to pay her respects to the prophet Khaled bin Sinan. She bowed before him with a reverence that was not one bit less deep than the one with which I had seen her bow before the statue of the Buddha the day we met.
Written by Mohamed Moneer.