Travelers in the night

by Aqeela Naqvi

I once met a man walking alone
Where the path in the desert bends
I asked him where he was headed—
He said, “To visit an old friend.”

Our ways seemed to cross so I asked
If I might join him by his side?
He gestured the way and so off we set
Two travelers in the night.

As we walked we spoke of our songs
The melodies written throughout our lives
Miles passed in this way in dust under stars
Until he stopped – “I have arrived.”

I looked around but all I could see
Was desert reaching out like the sea
But the man planted his cane and said,
“This is where my friend will come to me.”

I thought – this man has lost his mind
With each second my doubt grew higher
I turned to leave, but saw him shiver,
And thought, first I’ll help him build a fire.

As I set the flame I looked at his face
It was wizened old and gray;
Before I had the chance to ask—
It was this story he started to say:

It was many moons and suns ago
When I was a much younger man
That traveling, I stopped at night
To make camp upon this land.

It was not long after I’d slept
That I was awoken with a start
I heard the neighs of many horses;
A scream that tore the world apart

I jumped and ran as fast as I could
Finding my way toward the sound
Not realizing that it was no longer night
And now the sun burned upon the ground

I came upon a group of tents
Where stood a weeping girl
Upon seeing me she stood up straight
And this righteous fire she unfurled:

‘Who are you, why have you come,
Why do you seek out our camp?
Is it not enough to send back bodies,
Must you also on our honor stamp?’

Confused I began to answer,
But I saw rivers raging in her eyes,
Her clenched hands holding the weight of grief
An aged woman in a girl not more than five

She stepped toward me and I stepped back
Afraid of the lioness who reared her head,
If she wanted to she could command oceans,
The skies moved with her every step

“Was it not enough that with sunrise
The first snarling arrow you let fall
Piercing the bodies of my uncles and brothers
Not heeding this honorable call:

“When a man stood on the plains to say
Underneath a torturous and blistering sun:
‘Where is the conscience that has left your skin,
where is your belief in the Almighty One?

‘Why do you act as the unyielding sword
In the corrupt and cruel oppressor’s hand
Would you sell your souls for a price so cheap
As gold and this worldly land?

‘Save yourselves, it is not too late
To step back from the chasm’s roar
You were not made to snarl like animals
But to, like angels, above heavens soar.’

“But though his words were Justice
And he held the banner of Truth up high
They lit the match of cruel desire’s flame
And made this, the day the roses died

“There was my sweet rose Ali Akbar –
When I was scared I would hold his hand
But now an arrow pierces his heart,
His body lays burning upon the sand

“And another rose, my dear Qasim
When he rode he cried his father’s name
They heard the echo of the Prophet’s voice
And so to silence his voice they came

“What of the roses Muslim and Zuhayr,
Or Aun and Muhammad, Wahhab or Jon,
Or Hurr, the commander of enemy forces
Who chose death with Right, not life with Wrong.

“All of these roses they slaughtered
Each one facing thousands alone in the fray
For refusing to bow their heads to injustice,
When facing death, this chant they’d say:

“‘It is better to die on the soles of your feet
Than to live in dishonor on your knees
Better to be the lofty and strong mountain face
Than the wisp that blows, aimless in the breeze’

“Such was the call of my uncle, Abbas
Who rode valiantly to the riverbank
He was to bring thirsty children back water
But they challenged him from every flank

“They cut off his arms and from his horse he fell
I watched in horror as the flag fell down
I saw my father weep over the body of his brother
His back arched and broken, upon the ground

“I screamed out this scream, ya Abbas!
As my father wept, My back has been broken
His wail was the thunder of God’s anger
His cry enough to rip the dark skies open

“But even this grief was not enough
No amount of torture could they befall
That would shake the faith of this man of God
Even in death, his conviction would stand tall.”

The little girl paused for behind her
A hand had come to rest upon her head
I followed it up to see to whom it belonged
And seeing, fell to my knees instead

Such radiance shone from his face
As to put to the brightest sun to shame
In his eyes there was such a calming grace
In his smile, the promise of coming rain

His arms reached down to greet me
As done when greeting an old friend
And with his embrace I was strengthened
Finding myself craving heaven’s scent

But all of a sudden he faded from me
And the scene changed before my eyes
I was now standing on the battlefield,
Witness to horror under bloody skies

My Master Hussain was falling to his knees
And the enemy was planning his demise
And as I stood witness I understood what she meant:
That this was the day the roses died

Because here was my friend, this rose,
Falling upon harsh and unwelcome sands
And his blood was running rivers and rain
And petals were weeping across the land.

There he was, under the shadow of swords
Yet his lips only spoke the name of the One
His final moments, such a display of worship
That not just humans, but no angels could have done.

I cried out and screamed, stretching my hand,
Restless, O my Master, let me take your place!
But when his eyes met mine there was only calm,
The gentle tide written upon his face.

His eyes looked into mine as if this to convey
“There is no pain when in His way you walk
They can take your body but your spirit is free –
Standing for truth means victory, even in loss.

“When I said, ‘Is there anyone left to help me?’
It was not just a call to the desert sky
It was a battle call against injustice
Not just for now, but for all time.

“I say not farewell as I pass from this world
Not now, but a thousand years before your birth
But as you return, waking from this dream
Remember – do not forget the human being’s worth.

“Remember this day if you ever feel weak
When a hundred roses for Justice did die
But find strength in knowing this secret
That even in death, true roses remain alive.

“Wake and return now to the time that is yours
Stand for justice, don’t let the legacy of truth end;
Do not fear the cost, for when in the fray you fall –
I will be there to bring you home, my friend.”

The old man’s voice breaks and in me something moves
Like when to raging rivers, hardened rock gives way
I look to the horizon and hear thunder,
And the old man’s voice slowly fades away . . .

I smell in the sky a sudden sweet scent
A warm wind against my face then sighs
And a thousand petals of roses appear
Falling gently from purple skies.

I close my eyes and feel something in me move
Like when galaxies dance among the stars
I find renewed conviction for Justice and hope,
With this call, “Remember who you are.”

I hear the sound of laughter and I turn
Wanting to learn more from the old man’s grace
But when I turn, I find he has disappeared—
A single rose just rests in his place.

* * *

I am now seventy-five and walking alone
Where the path in the desert bends
I have lived out my years, in struggle for truth
And it is with truth that my story ends.

It found here in an old man’s story true love,
Found the bravery of humans who transcend
It was here I found the indomitable power of soul
The strength of a spine that does not bend

It was here that I found the meaning of life
And every day after was in this meaning spent;
Now I return to lay down well-worked bones,
For that sleep whose dreams are without end.

As I adjust my cane and walk towards the stars
A young girl’s path meets mine along the bend;
And when she stops to ask where I’m headed,
I smile – “To visit an old friend.”

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