Trust in God – but always tie up your camel!
A man was on his way to market when he passed a mosque. He realized it had been a long time since he´d been to pray and so he left his camel outside and went inside.
For the next two hours he made his peace with God, reading verses from the Koran and prostrating himself on the ground. He came out feeling very calm and serene until he realized that his camel was nowhere to be seen.
“How could you do this to me, Allah?” He screamed at the sky. “I put all my trust in You and this is how you repay me?”
A dervish happened to be passing by and told him. “Sure, trust in God – but always tie up your camel!”
This is perhaps the most famous of the many stories of the Sufi poet, Rumi. He´s been dead for 700 years but his ecstatic poetry is more widely read than ever and i arrived at his tomb in Konya, South West Turkey to pay tribute.
I allowed myself the luxury of a cheap hotel room and spent the morning trying to do my laundry in the sink, hanging up clothes to dry on the edges of doors and wardrobes here and there.
It turned out that i couldn´t afford the entrance fee for tourists but a few locals talked the doorman into letting me in for free. I was a pilgrim, after all.
I walked in and waited for the expected mystical experience to hit me. But all i could see was a world of carpets on the floors and walls (they were too heavy to line the ceilings as well) and glittery arrays of tapestry blinding me on all sides. It took me about ten minutes to work out where the body actually lay.
There´s a strong spiritual tradition in many parts of the world that to visit a tomb of a great master will bring great merit and personal advancement. But no revelations, voices or visions were forthcoming and suddenly I couldn´t imagine what on earth I was doing there.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in panic as I realized I had no idea of where I was staying. When in a new city, in a foreign country where you don´t speak the language, it´s really, really, a good idea to remember the name of your hotel.
I was rescued by the young guys who had helped me get into the tomb. They helped me get back to my room but I had the feeling that failure and fracas had decided to accompany me on my through Turkey. All that was to come was a direct confirmation.
I stumbled across a carpet shop and the owner invited me in to take tea. He was playing backgammon and his fingers moved at the speed of light across the board, scooping up dice and counters before I could follow any of his moves.
He looked me up and down and saw that I wasn´t the usual tourist carrying a guidebook and camera. And so he invited me to join him at a gathering of Sufis the following month.
“Ah Mister Tom, you must see it! We tell stories of Rumi, drink coffee and sing all the night!” And he swung his head in memories of the long evenings of ecstatic trance.
But my timing was all wrong and I had to hitchhike on. No one wore seatbelts here and i spent too much time praying we wouldn’t crash to take in the scenery. I got stuck at junctions to towns, unable to understand where the roads were going and ended up walking five miles with 40 kilos on my back.
I cursed myself for the bright idea of being a walking bookshop – my rucksack was full with 75 copies of my book that I’d published in India. Just when i could feel the onset of fever approaching from such back-breaking exertion, a Turkish man pulled up and asked me in German:
“What are you doing in Turkey?”
His name was Mehmet and he invited me to stay with his family that night. He was so proud to have a foreign guest that he took me around to all the houses of all his friends and family. The last house was that of his five cousins. All of the beautiful young women. Unmarried.
“Do you have a wife?” They asked me with rich, brown eyes.
“No,” I told them, “But when I decided to get married I´ll come to Turkey!”
At this they all fell into delighted hysterics and brought forth more plates of cakes. The guest has to play the clown and entertain his hosts once in a while.
·“Ah, Tommy, Tommy,” Mehmet would sigh every half an hour or so, like it was too good to be true. “Friends! Yes, friends!”
It was time to move on to Cappodocia and I discovered to my shock that there was still snow on the ground here and there. I spent a long time waiting for a ride and a chill wind whipped around my neck, inducing an evil cough and a burning forehead. I arrived in the early evening and was so sick that I checked into the guest house that looked the warmest, even if it was more expensive than the others.
All of the other guests seemed to be on their Spring breaks and they sat around all day watching videos of English sitcoms and playing cards. I had no energy to talk and for the next 48 hours I hardly moved from my bed. I wore all my clothes and still couldn´t get warm enough. Now I really did have visions and voices coming to me but owed more to the fever than my visit to Rumi´s tomb.
I shivered and sweated so much for the next two days that I couldn´t eat a thing. The hours passed in a blur and i couldn’t even communicate to anyone that i was ill. I couldn’t afford anything on the menu to eat and figured maybe i shouldn’t anyway. The English woman who ran the place gave me a free cup of tea.
When I awoke 48 hours later it was like from an evil nightmare. My perspiration had been so intense that the dye from my waistcoat had blackened the sheets of my bed.
“You might as well steal it now, mate.” An Australian backpacker laughed, taking in the sight of the sheet. “You been ill or something?”
I wasn´t yet recovered but my money was running very low and so I had little choice but to head on. My bags weighed some 40 kilos and I could hardly carry them for more than five minutes at a time. The truck drivers that stopped often had to lift my bags up into the cabin for me. I was too weak to do it myself.
The truckers were fully sympathetic to my condition but they insisted on shoving booklets of pornography under my nose as we drove along. In Turkey this was hot stuff and I smiled in appreciation so that they wouldn´t lose face.
By the time I came up to the Syrian border I felt like dying. It wouldn´t have been a bad way to go.
“Writer found dead by the roadside, 75 of his books beside him.”
But no, there was always the possibility that things could get worse. I still had to get through Syria and Jordan to reach the Promised Land.