Chapter 8 – Kaf Ajnoun, Algeria


Henry had no doubt the Kaf Ajnoun was a place of spirits, even if they weren’t the djinns the Bedouins and Tuaregs feared. This is one of the old places of earth, he thought. People lived here thousands of years before the Egyptians raised their pyramids or the herders in Turkey and Mesopotamia started building cities. He knew the Sahara had once been a lush forest with lakes greater than those in America. His memory flashed back to the cave paintings he’d seen in Egypt of men swimming and fishing from boats and hunting antelopes and other game. In those paintings, elephants, giraffes, buffalo, and lions once roamed the Sahara where now only desert foxes and gazelles could survive the brutal, unrelenting heat. There were cave paintings in Kaf Anjoun, as well, but these were unlike any others he’d seen: grotesque men with globe-like heads, often with just one eye, bizarre animals like elephants with antelope heads, and undecipherable symbols from forgotten rituals and ceremonies.

In summer, when the Tuaregs camped close to Kaf Ajnoun, Henry would come here for several days to dream. He had never abandoned the beliefs and practices of the Mohawk people who had raised him. Only in the dream world, free from the fears, desires and unfulfilled needs that drive waking actions, could one discover one’s true goals and destiny. Only in dreams might a person come in the presence of Tharohyawako, the Sky God. His Sufi Master, Ibn al-Jabir, so many years ago, had taught him that the waking soul was like a caged bird that loses even the awareness of flying. Only in the spirit quest was the soul free to seek truth.

But his latest, constant dreams were troubling. In one, he was once again a seventeen-year-old boy in New York, fighting like a man with his Mohawk brothers against the Rebel army sent by Washington to drive the Iroquois from their centuries-old homeland into exile. All wars were cruel; this one had become heartless on both sides. Those monsters, the Butlers, and their Seneca allies had massacred the colonials they had captured at the battle of Wyoming. Butler boasted of 277 scalps they had taken in battle. The forty survivors taken alive had been tortured until they died. Four months later, at Cherry Valley, Butler and his Senecas had turned their terror on the civilians in the farms around the Rebel fort, scalping, torturing and raping as they set fire to the homes.

So the army of 3,200 Continental regulars and militia Washington sent northward along the Susquehanna under General Sullivan the following year in 1779 sought revenge. Following Washington’s explicit “scorched earth” directive, they burned their way through the lands of the Iroquois Confederacy, destroying crops and leaving villages in smoking ruin. They took few prisoners. Hundreds of fleeing survivors died from starvation or exposure. At the last, desperate battle to stop the Rebel army’s advance at Newtown, the Loyalist and Iroquois force of 1,000 men led by Henry’s closest friend and mentor, the Mohawk chief Joseph Brant, was hopelessly crushed. Brant had sent Henry ahead to warn the remaining Mohawks to run for their lives. Now in his dream. Henry stood outside a burning village, as Sullivan’s militia savagely killed the remaining old men, women and children. He was frozen in place, unable to help. Their screams haunted him.

In his other recurring dream, he was lying in great pain, chained to the floor, in utter, silent darkness, alone, wholly separated from the living world. Was he already dead, and entering the timeless world of Barzakh, awaiting the descent into the fires, boiling water and black smoke of hell? Or was this a living hell into which his enemies had thrown him?

Except for Peter, who had experienced the power of Henry’s dreams in his own life, there were few Europeans or Americans with whom he could discuss his dreams. Most men and women Henry had met — Dihya was an exception — were driven by passions and unfulfilled needs whose power over them they denied — if they were even aware of them at all. People, including himself, stumbled blindly through life, all too often hurting or destroying whatever they stumbled into. What had Ibn al-Jabir taught him? Most men live like a blind man groping around in a pitch-dark room, trying desperately to capture a black pig — who isn’t there.

He had no words to describe the place he went to in his dreams, beyond the veil of conscious thought, but he believed what the Mohawks had taught him. Dreams come from the soul’s depths. To ignore one’s dreams was to shut one’s self off from the messages of the sacred power, Orenda. Dreams were meant to be studied and shared until their meaning became apparent. What had the Frenchman Descartes believed? “I think, therefore I am.” It made more sense to Henry to believe “I dream, therefore I am.”

As a child among the Mohawks, he could go to Corn Silk, the arendiwanen of his village, and pester her to help explain his dreams until she lost her temper and threatened to use her magic to turn him into a squirrel and eat him for dinner. Old Grandfather Tiyanoga and Henry’s boy-hood friend and mentor Joseph Brant had been more patient, helping him search his spirit until the meaning of his dreams became clear. They both had been gone from his life now. Joseph had died almost thirty years ago. And it had been decades since he last studied with Ibn al-Jabir. He felt like a man on a journey through a dangerous wilderness with no guide to advise him. Were his dreams dangers he should seek to avoid, threats he should try to prevent, or a reality he should embrace with courage? His only answer lay in Rumi’s words: “Abandon safety. Live where you fear to live.”

Near the crest of Kaf Ajnoun, a bowl-like col spread out between the two highest peaks. To the Tuaregs and Bedouins, this was the fearsome place where the djinns gathered in council; for Henry, it was a perfect retreat. He had hidden his supply chests in deep cave in the south wall. They contained weapons and ammunition, grain for his horse, food for him – rice, dried figs and dates, and jugged hare and lamb – and disguises.

After a dinner of lamb and rice, he went to his supply chest and, with the light from an oil lamp, began changing himself into a wretched beggar. The rags he put on were tattered and dirty. He took two plugs of gum and inserted them high under his cheeks, fattening his face. With more gum and paints, he covered his left eye with a scar so it seemed as if that eye had been violently plucked out. Into a small bag he put his pièce de résistance, an insert, made by a master metal smith in Bagdad, that fit tightly in his lower mouth, lengthening it into the slack-jawed look of an imbecile. More important, the insert had been so crafted and painted that when he opened his mouth, it was apparent that his tongue had been removed with hot pincers, making it impossible for him to speak – or answer questions about his identity and intentions.

Henry woke from sleep in the quiet time before dawn. During the day, with the help of the powerful spyglass Peter had given him, he had tracked and timed the movements of Ibn Hazm’s patrols. The morning patrol would find him stretched alongside the road from Ghat, a mile from Ibn Hazm’s camp, apparently near death from exposure. He had left grain and water for Tinitran. So great was her loyalty that he knew she would wait patiently for his return. Henry sometimes wondered how long she would remain there for him were he not to come back. Would she stay where he’d left her until she starved to death, or finally pick her way back down the mountain and return to the Tuareg encampment? He didn’t plan on being away long enough to find out.

He rose, tamped out the embers of his fire, and started down the mountain on the five mile walk to the place where he would wait for Ibn Hazm’s patrol. He shivered as he picked his way through the rocks, guided by starlight and memory. Pity my disguise doesn’t include a warm burnoose, he thought.

*      *      *      *      *

The morning patrol, drawn to the vultures already circling above, found the pitiful stranger stretched out alongside the northern road, apparently near death. “He is so near death, insha’Allah, both feet stand on Sirath,” said one of the men. “The vultures already know his fate. The kindness is to let him go on the way chosen for him.” “No,” said another, “the kindness is a bullet to release him from his suffering.”

“What, do you now place yourself in the seat of judgment!” angrily exclaimed the patrol’s leader, Abdul Rahman. “Has not the Prophet, blessings be upon Him, said, ‘Indeed whoever believes that Allah is All-Generous and provides for His creation rewards those who are hospitable towards their guests’? Which of you will go to our pious Sheik Ibn Hazm and say that rather than welcome a guest by killing the fatted calf, as did Father Abraham, peace be with him, you killed him like a dog on the road?”

Abdul Rahman dismounted from his camel and hurried to the stranger with a goatskin of water, lifting his head gently. The stranger looked back at Abdul Rahman with touching warmth and gratitude. As the stranger began to drink, the water spilling from his lips onto his filthy rags, Abdul Rahman could not refrain from drawing back in shock at the horror of what had once been a mouth. “Surely this is a messenger from Allah sent to test us!” cried Abdul Rahman. “Allah loves the generous ones and hates those of a mean spirit.” He helped Henry to his camel, mounted him and then climbed up behind him. “We return to camp,” he called out.

What a godly old man, Henry thought, as he collapsed into Abdul Rahmaan’s supporting arms. Too bad he’s the exception rather than the rule. And shame on me for deceiving him. But I’ve been on the road to the hell of Jahannam a long time. The only question is through which of the seven gates I wind up entering.

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