After a long journey involving many guides in as many countries, the narrator, (Juan) Amado González, arrives in Mogador, a walled island city off the coast of Northern Africa. He is seeking a manuscript written years earlier by Aziz Al Gazali, the calligrapher of Mogador and founder of the caste of the Sleepwalkers. Amado, a Sleepwalker himself, hopes this book will help him find an incarnation of Hawah, Aziz’s lover, and so fulfill the insatiable desires that have driven him across the world.
When I finally succeeded in finding the Attar of Mogador, healer and pharmacist, he was standing in the middle of his shop full of feathers, powders, animal parts, loose sheets of holy writing and talismanic stones. He was counseling a newly married woman on how to gain control over her husband, who had not gone to bed with her for two days.
“One morning after you have spent the night together you shall urinate seven times into your right hand. A little bit each time. And you shall put these waters into a teakettle. When you prepare breakfast for your husband serve him your waters as well. When you see that he has drunk them you shall say these words without letting him hear you:
I made you drink of my waters
so you will only see through my eyes,
will only hear through my ears,
will only speak with my words.”
The woman nodded and rushed off, covering her face as if trying to prevent me from seeing her or anyone from identifying her as she left that place.
Before he looked me in the eye, Attar stared at my tattoo. He bombarded me with odd questions about my great-great-grandfather, about my great-grandfather, and about my grandfather. I could answer only a few. Then he began to tell me stories that were like riddles. Some of them, he supposed, only Aziz and Jamal knew. For me they were old stories and proverbs that had always been told in my house, and which I completed as quickly as Attar could deliver them:
“At the bottom of the sea lie incomparable riches …”
“… but safety is only on the shore,” I answered.
“The Arabian horse gallops faster than any other …”
“… but the camel, slowly, day and night, walks farther.”
“If you can’t stand the prick of a needle …”
“… don’t stick your hand in the scorpion’s nest.”
“No one throws stones …”
“… at trees chopped into firewood.”
“The true lover…”
“… sees two or more realities in his beloved.”
“Like the moon between the trees …”
“… my beloved appears and disappears before my eyes.”
“All night long a stranger wept beside a dying man …”
“… but by daybreak the visitor had died and the sick man was well.”
“If the dervish remains in ecstasy …”
“… his soul will remain divided.”
“He alone possesses the truth …”
“… who will not perish in a shipwreck.”
He continued posing questions and asked whether I knew of Aziz’s manuscript, which he was safeguarding. I told him that I had come to get it. He told me that first I had to know more about Aziz. I had to know what sort of man he was in order to respect what he had written. He stood up and invited me to follow him outside his remedy shop. We walked to the center of the plaza and waited there for a few minutes. Attar was constantly noting the position of the sun.
Suddenly, a man dressed in blue and red satin appeared. Several people were following him. We joined the silent, patient group. Before beginning his story the old man walked slowly from one side of the plaza to the other until he found just the right spot for us to listen to him.
He inspected everything he saw with a curiosity that seemed insatiable, as if he were choosing the best ground on which to found a city. But he always came to a halt at the same spot—near the center of the plaza, slightly to one side of the Western Portal where, as the sun set, his shadow would lengthen behind him until it passed directly through the large, half-open doorway to the Palace of Water, the Hammam, the public bath of Mogador.
At the doorway to the palace, the guards recognized his shadow and hastened to kiss it before it sunk altogether into the dark sea of night. The old man was a kind of saint to them for he was the bearer of the word that transports all who hear it to other states of the soul: a halaiqui, the ritual storyteller of the plaza of Mogador.
The old man looked around, pausing for an instant at each of the cardinal points. Then he looked up at the sky and let loose a sort of shimmering howl that gradually turned into a song. With each undulation his voice reached farther into the distance and came from deeper within him. At the same time, his voice seemed to rise into the clouds like a column of swift, thick smoke. Everyone, even the birds in the air, were seized with the intense desire to follow his keening song. The birds flew around him, cawing. They seemed to bite the air. The notes of the water splashing in the fountains of the palace and the plaza also wove themselves into his voice bathing it. And we all came to drink his stories like thirsty children.
Just when we least expected he abruptly broke off his song and began his story. This time, before starting his tale, he violently shooed away the boys and girls seated at his feet and asked several parents to leave or cover the ears of their little ones.
“This is the story,” he warned us, “of how the lives of Hawa and Aziz became intertwined in a knot that tightened until it bled, and I won’t be holding my tongue.”
Then he plunged into his story:
One hot afternoon, as the sun seemed to slowly swallow up the world, Aziz was promptly seduced by the smile of Hawa, by the steady gaze of this woman who seemed as enigmatic as a feline and as delicious as water.
Once they had crossed paths in this very plaza he was no longer able to take his eyes off her. He caressed her steps from afar. He wished he were the wind that brushed against her skin. A consuming curiosity gnawed at him inside and out: he wished to hear her voice, to know the taste of her laughter, to breathe her breath, to travel the secrets of her skin, and never to cease looking at her.
He could not help but follow her. When he finally passed Hawa and then turned to look her in the face and walk straight toward her, his breathing was a maelstrom of doubt but a whirlwind that drew him inexorably to Hawa’s body. Even his quickened steps could not keep pace with the pulse of his blood.
As they passed each other she looked up slowly and smiled with assurance at Aziz, quite close to him, as if waiting for him to utter the first word. To his surprise, he smiled back and walked right by her as if he had never intended to say a thing to her. A strange shyness, a kind of sudden paralysis had seized his throat, his eyes, his arms. Now he felt foolish, inept, a bit sad.
But as he walked away, he experienced relief as the tension of his desires diminished. A gentle breeze softened the hand of the sun on his face. He closed his eyes and let its caress spread through his body, and when he opened his eyes a second later he was already running toward Hawa without a word in his mouth.
She watched with amusement as he approached: flustered, nervous, sorry for having run off. She didn’t let him speak. Slowly but firmly Hawa lifted her hand to Aziz’s face and placed two fingers over his mouth. He bit them with his lips, his eyes nearly shut. Hawa offered him more and more of her hand, then her neck and he, obeying in silence, followed the path indicated by her subtle movements, intentionally keeping his lips dry. He was traveling the large vein of her neck when he decided to wet his lips and then include his tongue in his nibbling caress. Hawa trembled, let out a sigh.
Her skin rose up in tiny bumps. Under her clothes, her nipples called out their desire to be caressed. And Aziz sensed in the air, at first lightly, then ever more distinctly, the humid scent that intoxicates men when women abandon themselves to the law of the senses.
“The sea is a scent that governs our movement,” thought Aziz. “The sea is this deliberate languor, this longing to reach her source, to sink into her forever. To remember with the tongue, remember with one’s hands, to follow an instinctual series of steps. The beating of the sea pulses through her body. Her brief syllables spell me out, her pleasurable scent surrounds me.”
Aziz, as is required of a professional calligrapher, turned letters into designs that many people found startling. He remembered the phrase he had drawn just that morning in his filigreed hand:
Linger in your haste.
And he felt it like an elemental command to temper the dagger of his movement toward Hawa.
Slowly, very slowly, he let Hawa’s voice enter him, let his gaze caress her, let their breath meet like hands intertwining.
They walked in silence. Aimlessly, they entered the labyrinth of the streets of Mogador. Their only wish was to lose their way altogether and they wasted no time in doing so. They continued walking as if to make sure they had gone astray. They felt themselves wrapped in a vast length of fabric that as it joined them concealed them as well from the rest of the world. It was the fabric of the night tangled in the fabric of the labyrinth that rose up to cover their eyes. The city and the night formed the cocoon of their metamorphosis, for they would never be the same again. Their bodily senses were swiftly entering a new dimension. They were becoming soul mates in transformation, creatures of their own desire. More than lovers, they were imaginary planets drawn to one another, their jungles interweaving, their desert sands mingling.
They walked over to a house where a high doorstep served as their bench. No one passed. Not far from where they sat, they heard the echo of someone snoring in a nearby house. They felt that the sound of their kisses, the words that practically vanished with their breath, the slow glide of their caresses might also be resonating inside those houses.
They thought that everyone could hear the inhabited silences they were weaving with their bodies. For a moment they were aware of being in the street but they didn’t care in the least. They reinvented love all night long, cloaked in the summer heat of their own hands.
They spoke only an occasional word, but even the simplest of those became obscene, turned into caresses, games of touch and reply:
“I want to be a stone that forever falls within you who are my well.”
And he responded:
“I want to be water and evaporate in your fire.”
She, swallowing him with her eyes and caressing his lips, said:
“I want to be fire and extinguish myself in your smile.”
“I want to be the smile provoked by your pleasure.”
“I want to wake within your dreams.”
“I want to take you where I’ve never gone.”
“I’m already there with you,” Hawa said as she sat on him, looking him in the face, clasping him with her legs, taking his head between her hands and sinking it between her breasts.
He no longer said how he wished to devour her, how he wished to feel the way her nipples were transformed on the skin of his tongue. How he wished to enter her very slowly, announcing more than asserting himself, rocking in and out rather than penetrating, persuading rather than taking possession. He no longer said these things for he was doing them. And she too refrained from telling him where she wished his hands would roam or the exact moment when she would hold him inside her with a strength that would exceed them both. Their bodies were talking, persuading, guiding, singing, and of course, dancing. Perhaps someone in the street heard them. No one said a thing.
Several hours later, when the sun began to rise and they decided to continue on their way, they could still hear the snoring in the distance.
They looked at the doorstep and knew it would be hard to find again: the heart of the labyrinth they had traced that night.
Later, in Aziz’s house, Hawa was surprised and delighted to discover the calligraphic instruments of her beloved and a few of the sayings he had drawn:
If what you have to say is not as beautiful
as silence, be silent.
The heart alone sees clearly.
Then Aziz picked out a fresh reed, a length of bamboo that could easily have been carved into a flute, and shaved one end to a flat point with a fine groove. He dipped the reed in an ink that smelled of dried blood and drew:
Woman is a beam of divine light.
Aziz was certain that the appearance of Hawa in his life was that of a goddess and that while they had made love, she had suddenly revealed a quality that was not of this world, a power and tranquility that could only be divine. To caress her was to begin the ritual by which he invoked that terrible and beautiful presence: a tenderness that was also a brazen force, a prayer composed entirely of hands and gazes that slowly turned into a liturgy.
Just before he met her, Aziz believed he had written so many words on the page of his life—and with such uncertainty—that it had to be entirely black and illegible. Now he knew it had been necessary to darken that page in order to inscribe with clarity Hawa’s dazzling outline, her intense presence.
He realized that the way to love her resembled to a large extent the way he began every work of calligraphy. First he would outline a shape, laying down the broadest strokes. This in calligraphy is called the frame. One must first set down the shape of certain letters to discover the structure on which the remaining letters will lie. In love he took the particular form of Hawa’s body and her most frequent movements and bound other movements to them, some of which had been the objects of his longing for quite some time.
Then he would interweave details in a sequence that never took the unpredictable for granted. Of course he improvised as he wrote. He would let a paradoxical lyricism direct his hands—paradoxical, as it sprang from his meticulous strokes. The rhythm and cadence of writing are important aspects of calligraphy. Hands make music with words. Lovers make music with the cadence of their bodies. Only rhythm can effectively break the silence and incite the senses.
The calligrapher constantly swings between notions of emptiness and fullness. One lover then the other is filled then emptied. Out of emptiness comes the desire for plenitude. Fullness produces a longing for emptiness. The music of plenitude uses bodies to draw the always new and secret shape of the word love, which each pair of lovers reinvents. As the poet Rumi said:
A good pen should break
when it succeeds in writing the word love
Here the old man of the plaza stopped, looked up at the sky, and once again let loose his song, which began with great force but gradually faded away. Silence filled us all.
Translated from the Spanish by Mark Schafer.