Long ago, in the days when Muslims ruled Spain, there was a certain wise and honest carver of wood by the name of Ibn Saud who lived in the city of Sevilla. He lived there with his wife, Nagia, and their two children, Farouk and Laila.
Nagia was a rotund, jolly woman, devoted to her family and respected in the city as the wife of one of its ablest craftsmen. She was renowned for her love of the stranger and her generosity to those less fortunate than herself.
Farouk, at sixteen, had already been helping his father in the woodshop for some years. He was lithe and slim and possessed a keen eye for beauty and a sharp mind to learn the trade. He was a quiet lad, treating his parents with all due respect and reverence.
Laila, like an unexpected comet in the night sky, had been born to Ibn Saud and Nagia many years after Farouk. She was only three years old and was the delight of her father’s heart, with her auburn hair and olive skin.
Often when Ibn Saud was plying his trade in the workshop, Laila would quietly enter and watch her father for an hour. Then, when he was on his knees, carving the bottom edge of some cabinet, or bending to retrieve a dropped chisel, she would put her chubby little arms about his neck and kiss him on the forehead.
The first floor of Ibn Saud’s house was the workshop; upstairs was his home. The house was situated in the heart of Sevilla where the skills of the craftsman were constantly in demand.
Because of Ibn Saud’s wisdom and talent his name was known far and wide. Not only did people seek out his crafts, but they also sought his counsel in matters both public and private. Life for Ibn Saud and his family was secure and comfortable – so much so that the man thought in his heart, “If only such a life could go on forever!”
One day, however, as he bent – under the eye of his daughter – to brush wood shavings from around the workbench, Laila spoke words that troubled his heart. Instead of kissing him, she took his head in her hands and examined his hair intently.
“Baba,” she said. “You have three white hairs growing here...and here...and there.”
The man was disquieted. Long after the little girl had run outside to play in the garden behind the house, his mind mulled over her words.
“I am getting old,” he murmured to himself. “If only life could go on forever. But no, soon enough I will be bent with age and infirmity. My son will lead me around by the hand and I will go to my grave in short order. The people of the city will forget my wisdom and the generosity of my family, and my name will pass out of history as though I had never existed.”
Such were the thoughts of the man.
At first the meanderings of his mind only made Ibn Saud uneasy. But as he meditated he became, day-by-day, more solemn and morose.
“Why so sad, my husband?” asked Nagia one day. “Life is full of promise for you. Who knows, you may one day sit at the city gates, judging disputes and blessing the little children.”
“Ah, good wife,” he replied. “You know not whereof you speak. Soon enough life will pass. I will grow old and die and be utterly forgotten. See,” he added, pointing to his head. “The process has already begun – I am turning gray.”
Thinking that he jested, Nagia laughed and said, “Ibn Saud, sometimes your wisdom borders on the realm of nonsense. You are yet young with a long life ahead of you, insha’Allah. But already you think of death?”
“Nay, woman. Long or short, life comes inexorably to an end. And my end will come soon enough.”
It wasn’t long before the poor man’s depression began to affect his work. At first it was a stray chisel mark here or there, then a spoiled piece of imported cedar wood, and after some time an inability to hold the tools.
If it were not for the skill and training of his son, the family would have been in need because after six months, the man was confined to his bed, where he moaned and pitied himself. The pleading of his wife, the cajoling of his friends, and even the pitiful looks of his children failed to wrest the man from his misery, which seemed to grow daily.
It happened about that time, that a wandering minstrel came to town from the mountain regions, singing new songs and telling wild tales of his travels. Ibn Saud’s friend Hamous came to visit him one day, asking him to come hear the minstrel.
“It will do your heart good, and take your mind off your foolish fears,” said Hamous.
Ibn Saud shook his head. “It will only increase my anxieties to hear such frivolities.”
“Ah, but the minstrel’s tales are amusing and will help you to forget. He tells stories of noble kings in the far north, and glittering gems on islands off the coast, and an elixir of long life in a cave in the mountains to the east.”
“An elixir, did you say?” asked the ailing man.
“Yes, indeed. Of course, no one takes the minstrel seriously, but his stories are a delightful diversion.”
Abruptly, and to the astonishment of Hamous, Ibn Saud rose from his bed and dressed. “I must hear more of this elixir of long life.” He slipped his djellaba over his head and turned toward the door.
For an hour the two men searched the streets of the city, seeking the teller of tales. They found him, finally, in a small inn on the Street of the Raven, where he was entertaining a group of workmen. Joining the group, they sat and listened.
As the group was breaking up, Ibn Saud went up to the minstrel and spoke to him. “Tell me truly,” he inquired, “Have you seen an elixir of long life in a cave in the mountains?”
“Well, Sidi,” said the minstrel, a gleam in his blue eyes, “I did not exactly see the elixir, but I did speak to its keeper inside the cave where it is kept.”
“Is this man to be trusted?” asked the craftsman.
“Indeed, Sidi, the man is a sage and a hermit. It is said that he has guarded the elixir for two hundred years and will guard it until the Man of Vision comes to him and asks him for it.”
“Who is this ‘Man of Vision’?” asked Ibn Saud.
“He is one who will come with understanding and discernment, revering life above all else and lifting the burden of the weary.”
“Will you take me to this keeper of the elixir?” asked Ibn Saud.
The minstrel put his hand to his chin. “Hmmm,” he said. “I did not intend to return by that route. I planned to go north to Toledo and thence to Britain.”
“How much money would it take to persuade you to return to the mountains instead?”
“My friend,” said the minstrel. “It is not a question of money…”
“Ten gold pieces?” asked Ibn Saud.
“…because it is so much out of my way…”
“Fifteen gold pieces?”
“…and I hope to be home for the next holiday season…”
“Twenty gold pieces?”
“You almost convince me that I should deviate from my planned route. Perhaps for twenty-five gold pieces I could be persuaded.”
“Twenty-five it is,” said Ibn Saud.
“But Akhai,” said Hamous. “Do you realize what you are undertaking? A trip all the way to the northern mountains? It will be fraught with dangers from robbers, and arduous paths. You are not a mountain goat and – to be honest with you – you are hardly in shape even to walk back to your home. Your many months in bed have weakened you. How can you imagine traveling for weeks to get to the mountains, and then weeks to get back?”
“You have a point,” said Ibn Saud. He asked the minstrel, “How soon do you expect to be able to leave?”
“In about two weeks,” he replied. “I still have many taverns to visit and the carnival will be here the end of next week.”
To Hamous, Ibn Saud said, “You see. I will have time to strengthen myself and to prepare for the journey.”
In the days that followed, Ibn Saud applied himself to his work once more and took long walks in the evening to regain his strength.
Hamous tried daily to dissuade him from his folly, as did Nagia, Farouk, and Laila. But to no avail. He was intent upon finding the secret of long life.
At last the day of his departure arrived. He was feeling better than he had felt in weeks because of his return to a work routine. Saddling his donkey, he threw his bag of provisions over the rump of the placid animal, and was off, striding alongside the minstrel.
They had been traveling for two weeks when they chanced to stop at the Sign of the Crescent Inn in Cordoba for the night. While supping in the dining room of the inn, Ibn Saud saw a man slumped in the corner, presumably drunk.
“Do you see yon fellow who is drunk?” he asked the minstrel.
Turning to observe the man, the minstrel said, “Indeed, friend, he is not drunk. That is Yahia. He has been in that corner for years now, neither seeing, nor speaking, nor hearing. It is said that he witnessed the drowning of his wife and daughter, and his mind has not been the same ever since.”
“Poor fellow,” said Ibn Saud, returning his attention to his food.
“Yes,” said the minstrel. “Some of us wish for long life. Others wish just for life itself, long or short.”
Upon this, Ibn Saud coughed and placed his spoon in his bowl. He looked intently at the minstrel to see if his words carried a deeper meaning, but the man simply smiled and asked after the quality of Ibn Saud’s repast.
Another two weeks passed and the two men turned into a tiny mud village on the plains where they asked for a night’s lodging from a peasant woman. Though of a dyspeptic turn, she willingly enough took them in for a gold piece.
In her humble hovel, Ibn Saud spied an infant lying in a wooden box filled with dirty rags.
“Good woman,” exclaimed the carver. “Pardon my saying so, but that is no way to nurture a child…”
The woman shot him a glance to congeal his blood. “And would you take the bastard? Born of who knows what father from the womb of a dead stranger? Mark how you admonish without knowing the facts.”
“Aye,” said the minstrel. “But the little wretch will, no doubt, burden the woman for a short enough time. I reckon that it will not see the anniversary of its birth.”
Ibn Saud shuddered. He was repulsed, but dared say not another word lest the woman throw them out.
The next day they continued on their way. They were almost at the end of their journey when they arrived upon the commons of a fair little village in the foothills filled with clean houses and industrious folk.
Walking along the commons, they came across a woman under a tree, weeping as though her heart would rend. She was not a young woman, but neither was she old. Ibn Saud was moved by her uncontrollable sobs.
“Why do you weep so, woman?” he asked.
Holding a cloth to her mouth, she replied in muffled tones, “I was betrothed to be married tomorrow, but today I have learned that my beloved is faithless and has run to another town after a younger, prettier maiden.”
“My sympathy to you, my dear,” said Ibn Saud.
“Yes,” said the minstrel. “The company of a companion is preferable to unending loneliness in old age.”
Ibn Saud started and again wondered at the meaning of the minstrel’s words. Was he, Ibn Saud, throwing away his most precious gifts for the mere shadow of a dream?
Three days later they arrived at their destination in the heart of the mountains.
After they had made camp at the base of a tall mountain, the minstrel instructed Ibn Saud on how to find the elixir.
“Look here,” said the minstrel, pointing to a cleft in the boulders next to them. Between those rocks you will find the faint traces of a path. Follow it and it will lead you gradually upwards onto the face of the mountain. At a certain point you will come across three wild olive trees, one of which is hanging precariously over a precipice. Stay to the right of the trees and continue your ascent until you come to a boulder in the shape of a triangle. Across from the boulder, on the side of a rock wall you will see some low bushes around which rocks and debris are lying. Push the bushes apart. Behind them is an opening just large enough for you to enter. Take no food, no water, no light. To procure the elixir of life you must enter empty-handed. When you have gone around a turn and the light of day is no longer visible, say out loud, ‘I come, a protector of life and love. Please bid me enter.’ If fate favors you, a voice will invite you to partake of the elixir. I myself was not invited, though I once asked. Perhaps you will be more fortunate. I will camp here with you until the morrow and will be on my way at sunup. I trust that you can find your way back home.”
Ibn Saud nodded. Yes, the path back home was indelibly etched in his mind. He would have no trouble.
That night they slept and Ibn Saud dreamed of his wife and children for the first time since his departure. He dreamed that a fire had swept through their home, destroying them. They could not escape from the home for lack of a strong arm to lift them down from the second story window. At dawn he woke in a feverish sweat; the minstrel was already gone. The carver’s mind was troubled, both by his loneliness and his vexing dream.
He hastily ate a crust of bread with some cheese and was soon scrambling up the path that the minstrel had shown him. He found the olive trees, the triangular boulder and the knot of low bushes. Pushing the bushes aside, he found the entrance to the cave.
Without a moment’s hesitation, he plunged head first into the small opening and crawled along the stony tunnel until the light of day was obliterated.
“I come, protector of life and love,” he said, his voice cold and muffled in the closeness of the cave. “Please bid me enter.”
He was breathless, listening. Waiting. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest so strongly he feared it would hide the sound of a voice. When he had about given up hope of being invited further, a faraway voice, like a faint breeze, said, “Enter if you dare. For the fullness of life is found in loving your neighbor. Many there be that seek fulfillment, but few there are who are willing to reject self-love to receive it.”
Ibn Saud trembled at the words. Was he seeking longer life for himself, or to serve others?
The voice continued. “The elixir brings untold joy to the one who partakes of it rightfully, but he who misuses it brings calamity upon himself. Do you seek the elixir for yourself, or that you may bring greater joy to the world?”
“Sir, I know not,” said Ibn Saud, truthfully.
“It is well that you know yourself enough to be honest. Continue on until you see a faint light in the cavern. Approach that light and you will see a dais upon which rests a vial.
“In the vial are three sips, each capable of removing one burden from, and lengthening the life of, the partaker. Beware that you use this elixir rightfully.”
Then the voice was silent. “What,” asked Ibn Saud, “is the penalty for misusing the elixir?”
But the voice did not respond. Ibn Saud had an impulse to turn and leave without the vial, but his curiosity overcame him. He went forward, following a faint light, until he reached the dais. As he approached, he saw that the glow was coming from the vial itself.
He remained on his knees, transfixed by the beautiful sight of the intricately tooled, crystal vial. In spite of rising apprehension, he reached out his hand and touched the glass. Under his fingers it was cool. He lifted it from the dais and examined each glowing surface. The workmanship was superb and the shape and form of the vial exquisite. Ibn Saud took in the detail as only a skilled craftsman could. After several moments, he put the vial in the pocket of his djellaba and groped back out of the cave.
Once outside, he breathed deeply and smiled. The transaction had taken place in less that fifteen minutes, but he felt as though he had been in the cave for three days. Stepping forward with sure footing, he began to make his way down the mountain. His heart was light—he had found the treasure for which many would have given a king’s ransom. He, Ibn Saud the carver, was the bearer of the Elixir of Life.
But thoughts about the penalty of misusing the elixir began to trouble his mind. What if he took it wrongfully? What calamity might befall him?
He walked for some days, thinking thusly, until he came to the fair little village. Traversing the commons, he came to a bridge over an escarpment and turbulent waters. Approaching the bridge he spied the woman whom he had seen some days before weeping over her lost lover.
She was no longer weeping, but there was a glint of determination in her sad eyes. As he came closer, she jumped to the top of the parapet and would have hurled herself headlong into the raging foam below, were it not for the nimble feet of the carver. He, seeing her on the parapet, grabbed her cloak and pulled her back to the bridge.
“Khlass, woman,” he said. “Blessed be Allah who has allowed me to prevent this cursed deed.”
She struggled to get free, but collapsed in his arms. Ibn Saud gently laid her on the ground, his large hand cradling her head.
“Would that I had perished,” she moaned and turned her head from his gaze.
Alarmed, he searched frantically in his bag for his water skin, that he might give her a drink. But his hand fell upon the vial.
“Here, woman,” said he, a tremor in his voice. “This will quiet your troubled mind. Take a single sip.”
She would have turned her head away, but Ibn Saud held it firmly, putting the vial to her lips.
She sipped and immediately lost consciousness, falling limp in his arms.
“Y’allah!” shouted Ibn Saud. “I have poisoned her! I should have let her perish by her own hands, then I would not have her blood on my head!”
Moments passed and suddenly the woman stirred. She shook her head, sat up and looked into the eyes of her benefactor.
“What am I doing here?” she asked him.
“Why, only moments ago you sought to fling yourself into the raging waters.”
A perplexed look overcame her. “Kind sir,” she said after a moment, “Whither you go, I go. Please take me from this place and let me serve. It all comes back to me now – the sorrow and pain of being rejected by my beloved. Yet...and yet, I feel no more sorrow or remorse. It is as though I had bathed and been washed clean of all pain.”
Ibn Saud was anxious at the thought of bringing the woman with him and tried to dissuade her, but she prevailed upon him and he finally relented, not knowing what adventure would come of it.
They traveled together for two weeks, she riding the donkey and he walking alongside, until they came to the mud village on the plain. Again he asked lodging of the old woman with the infant.
As he entered the hovel, he heard a cry come from the infant. The woman, beside herself with anger, picked up the child and dashed it into its box bed.
“Desist, woman!” Ibn Saud shouted. “Harm the child no further!”
The infant ceased crying, its only sound a labored breathing and gurgling. Ibn Saud rushed to the side of the child’s box just as it sighed and stopped breathing.
“Why are you meddling, you fool?” said the woman. “The child is in my care and I will do with it as I wish.”
“Nay, woman,” said Ibn Saud, looking up at her with a withering glance. “All you will do further with this child is to bury it. It is dead.”
“Good riddance,” said the woman. “Since you have such fond attachment to the wicked little beast, you may have the corpse as a souvenir. Take it and be gone!”
“Very well,” said the man, taking the child in his arms and leaving the hovel.
His young companion, her hands over her mouth and horror in her eyes, followed him to a nearby eucalyptus tree, under which he laid the body of the infant.
From his bag, he took the vial. Uncapping it, he poured a drop into the mouth of the child.
“But he is dead, is he not?” asked the woman.
“I know not,” said Ibn Saud. “But this I do know: this vial contains a powerful potion that can do wonders.”
They were silent for the space of three minutes, and then the child sneezed. Ibn Saud and the young woman looked down to see that its eyes were opened and it smiled at them.
For a moment Ibn Saud was speechless. “I guess,” said the man, turning his head slowly toward the woman, “that we travel as three, now.”
The woman reached down and tenderly raised the child to her bosom. “Gladly will I care for it,” she said, looking into the eyes of the babe.
They found other lodging and were off the next day. Their going was slower now that they had a child needing constant care. But nearly three weeks later they came to Cordoba.
“I know a fine inn,” said Ibn Saud to the woman. “We will stay there for the night.” He took her to the Sign of the Crescent. As they entered, they noticed a great commotion. There was a circle of men in the middle of the dining room talking excitedly.
“What goes?” Ibn Saud inquired of a man at the back of the circle.
“’Tis a catatonic fellow who used to sit in the corner, not speaking or seeing anything around him. He took him a fit of apoplexy and is now dead still in the middle of the floor.”
Ibn Saud remembered the man who had suffered the tragic loss of his family. Forcing his way into the middle of the circle, he threw himself on his knees, took the vial from his bag, and poured the remainder of its contents into the prone man’s mouth.
All watched as the man slowly regained consciousness. He sat up, looked around, and asked, “Wherefore do I find myself here?”
A roar of laughter went up from the crowd of men. “Wherefore does he find himself here, he who has lived in that corner for years now. This is a fine one.”
Ibn Saud helped the man to his feet. As he stood, he saw the woman and child still on the threshold. His face became as ashen as a winter storm cloud. “Miriam,” he exclaimed. “How have you and my little Zahra come back from the dead?”
The woman smiled sweetly at him. “Not so, good man,” she said. “I am not Miriam, but Nura. And this is a man-child. But if you need someone to comfort you and care for you, I would be well pleased to do so.”
She looked toward Ibn Saud with a worried expression, but he smiled and pushed her toward the man.
“So be it,” said the carver. “And may you live long and well.”
The man, woman and child left the inn. “I have a house on the edge of town…” the man was murmuring to her as they left.
The next morning Ibn Saud picked up his bag and headed out the door of the inn, intent on getting back to Sevilla as soon as possible.
He was feeling better than he had ever felt in his life. The muscles of his legs rippled as he strode along the dusty path toward his home, leading the donkey behind him.
Upon his arrival, two weeks later, Farouk met him at the door of his woodshop, shouting up the stairs to his mother and sister, “Mama! Laila! Look who is here! Father has returned.”
There was great rejoicing in the household. Nagia laid a splendid dinner in honor of her returned husband. His wife and children plied Ibn Saud with questions about his trip and the elixir and, though he answered readily enough about his travels, he would say nothing of the elixir.
At the end of the meal, he said, “Good wife, I have brought you a gift from far away in the mountains.” Going to his bag in the corner of the room, he withdrew the vial and brought it to Nagia. Now that the elixir was gone the vial no longer glowed, but its delicate facets sparkled in the glow of the lamps on the wall.
“Ah,” exclaimed his wife. “Such craftsmanship, such beauty!”
“Yes,” Ibn Saud agreed. “In two lifetimes, one would not tire of gazing at its beauty.”
The next day Ibn Saud took up his tools and set to work in his workshop. During the months that followed, the wood seemed to fashion of its own will under his hands; the quality of his work was such that the Caliph himself bought carved pieces for his palace.
Over the years, Ibn Saud grew grayer and more wrinkled, but his strength remained that of a younger man until the hairs of his head were completely white and his back was bending with age.
Only once did he venture to say anything about the elixir. One day Hamous asked him if he had found it.
“Yes, my friend,” said Ibn Saud. “I did find it.”
“And was it in that vial which you gave to your wife these many years ago?”
Ibn Saud shook his head, the faintest of smiles on his lips. “No. What that vial contained was potent and useful, but it did not contain the elixir.”
“Then,” Hamous persisted, “where did you find the elixir?”
“Here,” answered Ibn Saud. “Here in these two hands, in these few tools, and…” he pointed to his breast “…in this foolish heart. When I realized that seeking the good of others is preferable to seeking my own good, I learned that my life – long or short – is filled with eternal moments.”
Paintings by Carl Haag (1820-1915):
Detail of Arab at Dusk, 1858
Detail of The Rehearsal, undated
The Water Seller, 1888
On the Way from Sinai to Cairo, undated
Bachist, a Howazeen Bedawee and Mabzookh, his Little Son, 1857