There is a special bottle I keep, tucked away in the corner of a hidden drawer: Use in Case of Emergency.
A deep shade of pink, three-quarters full, sparkling with a liquid more precious to me than most of my possessions — not for the contents themselves, but for where they take me.
Four years ago, on a summer night still with desert heat, a dear friend set off on a quest into a bustling market. Searching through alleyways, combing through side-shops, until she came across — there, what she had been looking for. Heart in hand, she returned, and gifted me a bottle of perfume, the same scent as that which is used in the sanctuary of Imam Hussain.
In that moment, I saw it as nothing more than a sincere gift offered by a sincere friend. Later, however, when I would find myself on the brink of giving up, lost at sea, the salty sweet of brine and mist stifling my lungs, I would realize she had given me something far greater. She had given me liquid breath.
I did not know that I would need it then, but perhaps she did. Perhaps she could see beyond to the moments when she knew this world would begin to make me forget; when I would begin to, once again, embrace the shadowy depths teeming around me, succumbing to the aimless drift of tossing waves. For those moments, she had handed me a way to remember. To resist. To return to this: the taste of air, the scent of sky.
Like many others, there are days when I am able to keep my feet: the path holds steady, the wind breathes clear, the destination seems nearly at hand. There are others, however, when things are not as easy. When my steps do not make way, as steady or as swift; when the weight of my pack begins to cut into my shoulders; when my lips begin to chafe from the labored heaving of my breath; when the darkness of the night presses, sharp, against my spine.
It is on such days, when I pull this bottle out from where I have kept it safely stowed, and draw a line of perfume across my prayer mat.
Scent, perhaps more than than any other sense, is the most potent in calling forth memory: I close my eyes, and with one inhale, I am transported.
I am sitting in a corner of your sanctuary, the marble wall cool against my back. From where I sit, I can see your grave, your visitors in their hundreds, moving in a hypnotic motion toward you. I take a breath in, wishing to immortalize this fragrance: the perfume adorning your grave, the smell of petals drenched with the dew of the stars.
Your pilgrims bustle around me – some lost in silent contemplation, others overrun by their tears, others enraptured in prayer to their Lord underneath the dome of His beloved servant. So many, but for me, there is only you.
Here, we sit. Your eyes are filled to the brim with honey. Silent, but your voice is the rush of birds, soaring in my heart. Still, but your gaze is the current, crashing upon my soul’s shore. Unmoving, but your embrace is nectar, spreading through my veins.
Around me, people are moving, the earth is spinning, galaxies are colliding – but with you, I am caught in a moment untouched by time. Your name is all I hear. Everything else is noise.
In the moments when I need, desperately, to remember, it is this map of fragrance which guides me back. When I return to this memory, to a piece of time when, with clarity, I could envision a better version of myself than I am now, it gives me the strength I need to stand back up, wipe the dust from my clothes, and try again.
When we remember Imam Hussain and the stand he took Karbala in 680 AD, we are reminded that the battlefield was divided into two sides. One contained those who had chosen the easier path of cowardice: giving in to the most base, carnal, and animalistic of their desires. The other contained those who had chosen the courage of resistance: the more noble, more arduous, path of rising to meet their humanity.
Recently, I heard a scholar say: “Your enemy will always desire for you to remain an animal. Your friend, will wish to see you become human.”
If this is true, then you, Aba Abdillah, are my oldest friend.
You, who gave everything so I might know you, and in knowing you, come to love you, and in loving you, choose to become like you. You, who allowed Hurr, the enemy commander, to stand against you, and then stand by your side, so that I might learn from his repentance, and choose, like him, to become human. You, who watched as your son, Ali Akbar, was attacked with spears for defending the truth, so that I might learn from his bravery, and choose, like him, to become human. You, who held your infant, Ali Asghar, as his throat was struck by an arrow and his blood dyed your hands, so that I might learn from his purity, and choose, like him, to become human.
You, who deemed this message so important that it deserved such a stand: enduring such pain as no one individual has ever had to bear; exhibiting such patience, that with each affliction, your face grew brighter; fighting valiantly amidst the fallen bodies of your friends, nephews, and sons; acting as the shield for the tents of your women and children, their last, most painful defense; falling to the ground, your skin littered with wounds; watching as a brute slunk forward towards your chest; suffering, that blunt strike, the running of that blade, the jagged slice – again and again – the gushing of your blood, the horror! oh, the horror, the raising of your head on a spear…
All, in order to pose to us this question: Why, you who have been given such capacity, are you still choosing this animal life? Have you not yet seen? Have you not yet understood the magnitude of who you have the potential to become?
And writing the answer, forever, with your blood: Witness. This, is how you become human.
What is your sorrow? Such that before it, all sorrows disappear.
What is your love? Such that it splits the seas of this world’s temptations, the staff of Musa (Moses); it carries its adherents safely through storms, the ark of Nuh (Noah); it restores sight to the blind, the scent of Yusuf (Joseph); it defuses all calamity, the coolness of the fire of Ibrahim (Abraham).
What is your call? Such that it transcends the boundary of country or language; heritage or birth; future or past; so that you have not called to us in a story from long ago, but are now, in this moment, still calling us.
And – for the one who, crying out! seeks you – where is your grave?
(I close my eyes once more, and breathe, deeply, gloriously, inward.)
It is here, in the stillness of the heart.