The sufi tale of the city of Azalâbâd


Within the shadow of the city wall, at the place where the cypress trees begin a long dark blue march down the mountainside to the ocean, sits the basket weaver. Daily, as his ancestors have done for generations before him, he squats in the dust, surrounded by strands of coloured straw, weaving not only baskets but tales of love, lust and longing; fabricating from the gossip of passers-by new mythologies and legends. He tells them of their own lives, yet they hear them as the stories of others.

As they pass in and out of the city on various errands, some people mesmerized by his swiftly moving fingers stop for a moment, sitting next to him to listen, only later to find that they have lost an entire day in the listening.

‘Maktub,’ he says, “It is written”. And bending his head, his bony calloused fingers twist the bright straws into intricate patterns of increasing complexity. Red, white, yellow, and black disappear within his hands, and as the baskets grow bigger, the stories also weave themselves into correspondingly complex patterns of inference and innuendo.

‘The snares of the Beloved are many’ he says, smiling toothlessly at the faces around him, ‘as are the Attributes of the Beloved’.

‘In a country that existed before and after time as you know it, there is a city called Azalâbâd. Perhaps some of you have heard of it? Many have called it the city of the thousand thousand gates. A strange city of high impenetrable walls and narrow dark lanes linked high above one’s head by delicately carved bridges… but the stories of the bridges are for another day. It is the gates of which I will speak now’.

‘The gates come in many sizes. Some are large ornate structures capable of dwarfing a Gothic cathedral; others are barely two feet across. There are gates bejewelled with a King’s ransom, baroque gates, gates of rotted, decaying wood, gates of glass, gates of precious metals – there is even a gate of fire. Some gates open at the touch of a child’s finger, others can resist an elephant! Some are locked; some are not. Some gates are not even visible, but it is said that these are the gates used by all flying creatures – birds, bats, insects and the souls of the dead. Some gates you can never forget, and others are erased from memory before you are conscious of ever having seen them. Each gate has its own name and purpose. In a lifetime one passes to many, but rarely through all the gates of the city’.

‘Azalâbâd’s walls, lanes, gates and bridges interweave much as the strands of straw in this basket. You may think you can guess the eventual pattern, but you cannot, for woven with the hand of intuition and the eye of discernment, only the pattern itself knows the secret of its being’.

‘Now in the heart of Azalâbâd a King lay hidden, waiting for a lover to enter the Gate of Love, and with heart aflame prostrate before his throne. Unfortunately, he’s been waiting a long time, for in this city of millions there were but a handful of would-be lovers, who, though struggling valiantly, were still trapped somewhere between the Gate of Pride and the Gate of Humility, or lost in the Lane of the Fault Finders, still eyed the goods in the Marketplace of Desire. How could they know that the Lane of Poverty is linked to the Gate of Annihilation by the Bridge of Remembrance? After all, the few who had made the journey in years long past were unable to speak of it’.

‘Over time, many of these would-be lovers had become both lazy and inert, content to sleep both night and day. True, they dreamed of the King, rehearsed words of love, designed their court apparel, wrote poems as to his beauty and so on, all the while lying in bed watching others cleaning the steps of the gates, prying moss from the walls or tending the many gardens. Quick to find fault yet slow to act, they waited for the king to summon them.

“When he calls me by name, I will go to him immediately!” said one.

“I am but waiting for a sign of his favour,” said another.

“Rather than ruin the garden. I will be patient till he shows me how it is done,’ said a would-be gardener, ignoring the weeds that, choking the pathways, killed the flowers.

‘These lazy ones, smiling with pleasure at their own good intentions watched as floors were scrubbed, carpets beaten and meals were prepared, piously mouthing prayers and thinking fondly of the day they would at last serve the King’.

‘The king, disappointed that no one had completed the journey, decided that perhaps a small prod might get them moving, hoping that his own poems of love might inspire them to try harder. And so, having heard of a marvellous young sculptor named Habib, living in a neighbouring country, the King sent him a letter requesting that he visit Azalâbâd and carve into the walls of the city the King’s own love poems for the citizens to read. As an added token of His favour he enclosed a locket of pure gold. “I must ask you to show no one this magic locket,” he wrote, “It must be our secret alone. I only request that you carve in beautiful calligraphy my words of love, and if you wish, the words of the masters. And if ever you should want to see me, the gate to my quarters is in the black wall at the eastern end of the city. You will know it when you see it”.

‘Overjoyed to be summoned by the King, Habib travelled immediately, arriving the next day. News of his arrival permeated even the darkest and most obscure lanes of the city; rumours of his beauty flew thick and fast; his face was likened to the radiance of the sun, and it was said that his sculptures and calligraphy were the most beautiful in the world. Rumour had it that Azalâbâd’s walls, when completed, would catch the rays of both moon and stars, as well as the sun. And so brilliantly faceted were to be the calligraphic incisions in the walls that light dancing from every plane and angle would cause the King’s words of love to pierce and enter each worthy heart’

‘Habib began his work immediately, choosing for his first site a small but very beautiful wall of alabaster. Draping the wall with a cloth, he enclosed it from sight, and to the citizens’ dismay would allow none to watch him work. In deep concentration he carved for forty-eight hours without stopping, each stroke of the chisel ringing through the city like the toil of a bell, rousing the lethargic people from their beds’.

‘Azalâbâd began to hum with activity, as the citizens bathed and groomed themselves in preparation for the unveiling of the first poem. Clothes were cleaned, hair pomaded, jewels polished, nails clipped and shoes shined in Habib’s honour’.

‘Crowds began gathering at the site at midnight, and by dawn the streets, lanes, bridges and rooftops of Azalâbâd were filled to capacity. As the sun rose, the walls glowed red, and an unexpected hush fell over the waiting crowd. Ten thousand pairs of eyes caressed the figure of Habib as he stood by the draped wall waiting for his moment. Like an actor at centre-stage he held the crowd’s attention; aware of his own striking appearance, he had dressed simply but elegantly. With a magnificent sweep of his arm he disclosed the freshly carved wall’.

‘Rays of coloured light shone from the once-plain wall, dancing brilliantly as the rising sun increased in intensity. Words, leaping from the alabaster, hovered in the crisp morning air. A million birds simultaneously broke into song as the world filled with symphonic light, the forms of the calligraphy curving endlessly inward on themselves, revealing deeper and still deeper patterns and meanings. Silently each person read the King’s words:

O heart! How conceitedly
you pride yourself in your knowledge!
Beware! Only in love lies the true way.
Only when you give up ‘I’ and ‘We’ in tribute
will the Beloved lay down His head
in reconciliation.
Only when your existence is plundered,
will your knowledge be transformed
into vision.
Never will you see the Beloved
until you expel all but Him
from the heart.
In the heart of the sea,
a chip of wood cannot remain.
Into the Beloved’s abode,
no self can enter.

‘The mystery of the King’s words, transformed into a whirling dance of dawn radiance, almost blinded them. And for a moment there was a possibility… but then, impatient for applause, Habib bowed, taking credit for the beauty of the script’s arabesques and curlicues, and with long slender artist’s fingers traced the calligraphy incised in the alabaster, caressing each line and indentation possessively – much as the lover might touch the face of his Beloved. Released suddenly from the deep emotion transfixing it, the crowd roared approval, chattering with delight at the novelty of the event, losing the breathless, timeless moment – a King’s gift’.

‘Habib, chisel in hand, stood next to the poetry on the wall, nodding graciously at the crowd’s applause’.

‘Later it was agreed that the spectacle was everything and more than had been expected. The words had reminded them of lost aspirations; love seemed possible, a journey to the Beloved imminent, as hearts drummed, stirred by the beauty of Habib’s calligraphy’.

‘Week after week Habib carved love poems into the various building stones of the city’s structure. Agate, quartz, limestone, fine Carrara, serpentine, nephrite, granite all polished to a high sheen, revealed daily new words from the King. The citizens of Azalâbâd became imbued with purpose. Bodies that had not ached in the service of the King now ached from carrying Habib’s tools and drawing instruments, knees were sore, as the carpets on which he knelt to work were cleaned daily. Hands now ached from secret practice at lettering, forefingers calloused with effort on the chance that Habib might train someone to be his apprentice. Many people dreamed of being the one at his side’.

‘In short – hearts that had not ached for the King now ached for Habib’.

‘Being both generous and wise, the King was pleased to feel hearts beginning to beat and eyes filled with the tears of love; and smiling to himself he applauded the backs bent in service of someone other than themselves’.

‘Habib, quite overwhelmed by the people’s response, carved even more quickly and passionately. His passion awoke Azalâbâd from its dream, energy poured into the streets of the city and thousands worked as though their hearts might burst with the effort. Hour after hour Habib wrote of love, of roses and dewdrops, of the moth and the flame, of wine and drunkenness, and so deep was his ecstasy that he forgot that the words he carved into the walls were not his own but the words of the King. Swaying to the rhythm of his arm, as the mallet pounded the chisel deep into the heart of the stone, the golden locket beating heavily over his own heart, Habib became delirious with joy and so expanded that he saw himself as the King’s equal, and in a daze saw the people of Azalâbâd as his own subjects. Within a short time so great was his daring that he chose from among the citizens a court of his own, naming a group of young men to be his chevaliers, and choosing a personal cook, secretary, various house servants, a tea master, etc.

‘The people chosen were reluctant at first to leave the King’s court for that of Habib, and resisting his generous offers, insisted that their allegiance was to the King. But Habib, crafty from desire, would pull out the magic locket with a pretended show of reluctance and place the golden jewel in the potential courtier’s hand, saying:

‘This locket is a mark of the King’s favour. I’ve been chosen by the King to be as he is. I am no ordinary lover. What would be sin in others is virtue in me. To love me is to love the King. We are one’.

‘And as if to prove his state, he began to share his mystical dreams with them, relating conversations with Jonayd and Erâqî, Hâfez and Bâyazed, telling of a supernatural samâ with Mo’înoddîn Cheshtî, until the King’s courtiers were so overcome with the beauty of these words that they surrendered their will to Habib’.

‘Well, as you might have guessed, the next morning the King was not only without his breakfast, but had no clean clothes! This was just the beginning, for the courtiers were not to be the only ones corrupted. Shameless Habib methodically wooed every person he met away from the King, telling each of them a different lie, playing on individual desires for fame and recognition, riches or attention; taking them aside one at a time, he showed them the magic locket, until they were all mad with devotion and ready to follow him into hell if need be! Within a few months the entire city knew the secret of the golden locket, each person happy in the knowledge that he or she was the ONLY knower of the mystical relationship between Habib and the King’.

‘Now it is very hard to keep a secret secret, and soon the citizens of Azalâbâd were dropping hints to each other of the unique nature of their friendship with Habib, indicating that they had earned special regard for attributes they unfortunately were not at liberty to reveal. People drew closer to each other, not out of friendship, but simply to keep surveillance on the comings and goings of others. As their love for Habib was the only aspect of the friendship that could be openly shared, they vied with each other in glowing descriptions of his beauty, many carrying his portrait with them, crying that his beauty was overwhelming, unbearable’.

‘Soon Habib was not even called by name, being referred to only as ‘he’ – ‘he’ said this, ‘he’ said that – everyone taking it for granted that it was of Habib they spoke’.

“Do you mean God?”, asked a stranger to the city, hearing ‘he’ as ‘He’.

“No, you fool, we talk of ‘him’.”

“Then you must mean the King?”, the stranger queried.

“No, we speak of Habib”.

‘The stranger was aghast. “But what of God? What of the King?”, he asked.

“They are all one”, cried an admirer, kissing crafty Habib’s picture until the likeness became a dark blur.’

‘The King knowing everything that happens in the city of Azalâbâd, waited for the frenzy over Habib to die naturally, hoping that there were those who might recognize in Habib’s work the King’s own message. But the madness seemed endless, hysteria masquerading as joy, lust as love, until at last the King decided to intervene once more. Reaching for his pen, he very carefully drew in the palm of his hand an exact copy of the magic locket. Then, cupping his hands, blew the image out of the window and into the Lane of Interpretation. The following day when Habib awoke the locket was no longer around his neck. He searched his rooms frantically, but it was not to be found. Finally, going to the site of his current project, the carnelian wall, he saw to his surprise that there were no admirers waiting. Running quickly over to the market place, Habib commanded the passers-by to follow him to the partly finished wall, promising them each a chance to carve one letter of the poem. But staring at him vaguely, they continued on their way. Now Habib was no fool, realizing at once that the loss of the locket had something to do with the new indifference; so, hastening to the kitchen, he fashioned a locket of bread dough, baked it and painted it with golden leaf. Then hanging it around his neck, he ran back to the carnelian wall. But there was still no one there. Back he ran to the street again, where, one by one, each person was again shown the locket under his shirt and reminded of Habib’s special place in the King’s heart. Quoting a line from Mo’înoddîn Cheshtî as added enticement, he soon filled the hall with those who could not tell counterfeit from real gold. As Habib began to carve in the wall a poem of his own about following one’s heart, clapping and shouting erupted, until finally, jubilantly, he led his devotees in a procession through the lanes of the city of Azalâbâd, saying:

“I, I, I, ‘tis I alone who can lead you through the Gate of Love to the court of the King”. And the crowd, echoing his words shouted: “I, I, I”.

‘Pleased with this ruse and entranced by the power of the fake locket, Habib felt it was time to confront the King, depose him from the throne, and show the world, that he, Habib, was the King’s equal. “Follow me to the Gate of Love”, he promised, “and I will show you who is King”. Singing and dancing in Habib’s wake, the mob wound its way through the Gates of Despair and Confusion, jamming the Lane of Ignorance in their ignorance to follow. At last reaching the eastern wall, which gleamed blackly in the noon sun, its onyx perfection as dazzling as diamonds, Habib looked for the gate mentioned by the King, but to his surprise there were two gates in the wall. Chuckling, he made his decision quickly; it was not hard to do, for on his right stood the most magnificent gate he had ever seen, its high arch a mosaic of blue tiles, a door of sandalwood, handles of amethyst, while at each side of the gate stood servants bearing golden axes – the insignia of the King’.

‘To Habib’s left, low in the wall, was a small brown gate of cracked, splintered wood, left open for the entry and exit of the city’s horde of stray dogs, who scratching and whining, lay among the refuse. Among the dogs crouched a woman, trying to enter the city through this gate, crawling on hands and knees. But the door was too low. Finally, laying flat on her belly with her face in the dust she attempted to wriggle through. Habib laughed, and the dogs began to howl. “What are you doing, woman”, he said, “when you can accompany me through the Gate of Love?” Through eyes swollen with crying the woman looked up at Habib. “Don’t speak to me of love”, she said. “For forty years I thought I loved, but it was nothing but self deception. I’m not worthy to enter the Gate of Love. Let me be”. Habib shrugged, turning back toward the great shining gate on his right, the fake locket on his chest gleaming as if it were real, his purpose strong in him, the woman at his feet already forgotten…’.

The basket weaver stops speaking, concentrating on a particularly complex part of the basket under his fingers. He is silent so long that the listeners become nervous, afraid that he has forgotten the end of the story. ‘Finish the story’, they clamour. ‘You must finish the story’.

The basket weaver looks at them. ‘You must be patient. After all, you the listeners are the ears that determine the course of the tale, the warp wherein lies the weft. I merely translate from the language of dreams. You must wait until the words of the weft form themselves’. He finishes the basket in his hand and starting another, smiles. ‘Maktub’, he says. ‘It is written that the Gate of Love and the Gate of Deception are very close together. But let us talk about the woman at the Gate of Dogs’.

‘Karima – for that was her name – had resided in the Lane of Endurance for many years, content with the sight of a small portion of the Gate of Hope, visible from her window. Years before, young and beautiful, she had fallen in love with a very difficult and unpleasant man. Rich and powerful, used to getting his way, he had seen Karima dance at the yearly festival, deciding then she must belong to him. The force of his will exuded a fierce charm that both attracted and repelled her, yet drew her to him. He was rude, indifferent and callous, and Karima, asking herself why she was enduring such behaviour, seemed unable to pull away. He rarely spent time with her, and when he did, he was insulting and cold, wanting only to own her, not share his life with her. She was an acquisition, as were his large house, stables, gardens and servants. When she begged him for attention, he suggested rudely that she go to his library and entertain herself there, suggesting that a little education would not harm her’.

‘Despairing of ever being loved by him, she planned to leave and move to another city. Searching for pen and paper to write a farewell letter, she found her way to his large, well-stocked library. (He was a man proud of his scholarship in a number of subjects). Karima sat at the desk for some time, but the words she sought would not form themselves on the page. Finally, she began to browse through the books, selecting at random, moving from geography to history, physics to geology, religion to poetry’.

‘And it was there in the poetry section that the miracle, as she liked t call it, began. There in the margins of the books, alongside the poems, were pencilled notations of incredible sensitivity and insight. A commentary on Love ran through the pages in this unusual fashion. Profound statement relating to the heart had been underlined, and the most beautiful of the poems were thoroughly commented upon’.

‘Karima knew that she was privy to the tentative and painful outpourings of a heart consumed by a love so fierce that it was in danger of annihilation. Her own heart felt calm at last, now perceiving in him another hidden being, wrapped in a love so sublime that it could not be shared. A man capable of the love she craved, but a man that might never show it.

‘When she left the library late that night, she was more deeply in love than she had ever thought possible. Within a few weeks they married. She hoped that her commitment to him might encourage him to reveal himself, but in this she was disappointed. The reverse seemed true. Marriage seemed to exacerbate his bad temper and need for cruel games’.

‘You exert no fascination over me now’, he said. ‘I shouldn’t have married you’. And with that statement, he became even more withdrawn’.

‘Soon Karima’s life was lived in the library. Books were her intimate confidants. Whispering to herself, she memorized the faint comments in the margins of the pages. Daily she searched eagerly for his loving remarks, hearing his voice in her imagination, pretending that his words were only for her’.

‘You don’t understand him’, she told friends when they expressed surprise at her feelings for him. ‘There’s another side of him that’s capable of the most subtle love I have ever known. All human love pales before it’.

‘Years passed in this fashion, he, working day and night to accrue money, Karima reading her way through the entire library of 70,000 books, searching for precious moments of nearness to him. As they grew old together, yet apart, her love for him increased daily. At one time she had been afraid of reaching the end of the books, of completing her knowledge of his inner self, afraid of the time that the library could bring her nothing new to her of her beloved. But on the last shelves she had found books unlike any others, books containing the teachings of Mo’înoddîn Cheshtî, books that were fresh on each re-reading, lending themselves to new interpretations each time she pondered them’.

‘It was within these pages that Karima discovered the purpose of her relationship with him. His comments here were even more cryptic, hinting at a mystery within a mystery, a love that was its own Presence and Absence. The cries of a heart on fire… She now saw why he treated her so indifferently – he was trying to teach her love beyond the ordinary, pointing to the hypocrisy and insincerity in so much of private life and public ritual, guiding her to the real instead of the socially correct or psychologically comfortable’.

‘Each insolent remark, each cruel act, Karima now welcomed with love and gratitude (seeing him as one of the Blameworthy, who teach by negative example) and filled with a quiet radiance, her life deepened in contentment. At first she tried to speak of these discoveries with him, but silenced by cold looks, she suddenly saw the wisdom of silence, the faculty of speaking about that which simultaneously has no name and all names. After that insight she was never again lonely, for love was now her companion’.

‘More years passed and they became old. The man began to sicken, confined to his bed, ranting and raging against the injustice of a world that would not led him live forever enjoying his accumulated luxuries. Knowing that he was close to death, she sat by his bed reading softly from the poems she suspected might be his favourites. Opening one of her favourite books, she read several lines that had prompted him to write a poem in the margin. This poem had become one of the mainstays of her life, causing her to think deeply on the nature of the one who had written it. But the man ignored her, turning his face to the wall’.

‘Let me read you a poem that you wrote many years ago’, she said. ‘The pencil writing is so faded that you must forgive me if I make a mistake.’ Holding the book close to the light by his head, Karima began to read these simple lines:

You may demolish the mosque or the temple,
And whatever you wish to demolish.
But, do no harm to someone’s heart,
As that is where God resides.

‘And leaning over the dying man Karima smiled down at him. ‘This poem has served as a map in my life. Through it you taught me love’.
‘Keep your sentimental nonsense to yourself’, the man shouted and, summoning a final surge of energy, knocked the book from her hand.
‘Karima was undeterred. ‘You have given me the most extraordinary love – and life – more than I could ever have hoped’.
‘I’m dying and you’re jabbering about love?’, he shouted, hitting her as hard as he could. ‘Are you mad?’
‘Mad? Yes I’m mad. Mad with love, master. For you are my master… You’ve been my guide. I’ve tried to follow the signs you left in the books, tried to read the Sufis as you have read them, but I have many questions and there is so little time now. Please, allow me to know you in your completeness before you go’.

‘An obscenity burst from the man’s mouth, but ignoring it, she bent down to retrieve the small book fallen on the floor. Holding it up to his eyes, she pointed to the faintly pencilled writings. ‘This is the real you, this is the man I have loved’. He lay silent for a moment for a moment. Karima felt her heart jump in wild expectation. Perhaps… now…? But the man scowled at the page as if trying to remember something; then with a great burst of laughter, he flung the book at the wall’.

‘You fool!’, he shouted. ‘These are not my words! I’ve never written a poem in my life. This book, and all the others, were in the library when I bought the house from some love-crazed poet!’. And within minutes he died – quite literally – laughing’.

‘Aghast at her folly, Karima ran from his deathbed into the Lane of Despair, blind with love. Losing her way in the maze of streets, she ran under the Gate of Aspiration into the Lane of the Moment, past the Bridge of Overflowing and through the Gate of Exile, searching for some small dark place in which to hide her shame’.

‘She came at last to the black eastern wall of the city, and there among the dogs threw herself down in the dust. Warm tongues attempted to lick away her tears, as mangy curs leaped around her, whining and howling, sharing her distress. But to her dismay she was not alone in her misery, a great crowd seemed to have gathered nearby, voices ecstatic with joy, songs of love. As the words of love penetrated, her shame increased. Throwing herself down on her belly, she tried to crawl into the Gate of Dogs’.

‘Feeling a hand on her shoulder, she looked up. A beautiful young man crouched next to her, talking of a King and offering to take her with him through the Gate of Love. None of it made sense to her, and she pushed him away, saying: ‘I’m not worthy to enter the Gate of Love. I deserve only the Gate of Deception’.

‘And giving one last look of longing at the glowing gate and the procession of people pouring under its indigo archway. Karima gave up any idea of escape from the awful reality stripping her of her illusions. Sobbing as the love boiling in her heart seemed to great to bear, the dogs led her into the mysterious darkness of their gate. Unaware at last of the singing of the crowd sweeping past her, Karima’s ears were deaf to the seductive voice of the young man as he shouted: ‘I, I. It is I, only I’.

‘Maktub. It is written that the snares of the Beloved are many and varied, for on that day ten thousand people passed through the Gate of Deception and only one through the Gate of Love. But, as it is said, when the love of the lover is Love, then like Majnun, the lover can be among the dogs and follow them directly to the hand of the King’.