Chapter 6 – The Nomad

At daybreak they set out once more. Eventually the track brought them out of the forest and led them up between mountainous crags. They kept going till they came to a flock of sheep and goats grazing in a grassy area. There was a tent there, made of black hair, and a donkey beside it. A family of nomads were gathered in the tent, eating a meal. When the woman saw them, she got up and invited them to share in what they were eating from the bowl. The family asked where they’d come from and where they were going, so Amsiggel told them about the journey he and Tazzwit had made and about the people they had met. “But there are three enigmas we’ve not been able to resolve,” he added, “The Woodcutter says someone created this world beautiful and good. The Hermit says something has happened to the world and spoiled its beauty and goodness. And the Old Woman says there’s no longer any security in the world at all – and even the world to come, she can’t be sure of safety there.”

“We all long for security,” said the Nomad, “but we won’t find it anywhere in this world, or the next, and the reason is simply that we don’t know how to really satisfy God.” Hearing this, Amsiggel added, “The Old Woman, poor thing, is afraid God will never accept her, because she isn’t able to fulfil the requirements of religion.” “We don’t fulfil the requirements either,” agreed the Nomad’s wife. “We live in the wilds,” added her husband, “so we don’t hear the call to noonday or evening prayer. We don’t know the months or days of fasting. We don’t have beggars to give alms to. We don’t know how to do the ritual washing. Pilgrimage and mosque teacher are both of them far away from where we are. We don’t know the words recited in the mosque and we don’t understand their meaning anyway. So what will become of us? How can we possibly be pleasing to God? And how can we ever be safe in his care?”

“Isn’t there some other way to please God and find safety in him?” asked Amsiggel. “Only those who go to the mosque find acceptance with God and live in security,” replied the Nomad woman. Her husband turned to them and said, “There’s a story that the old-timers used to tell. Once there was a king who invited some men to eat supper with him in the palace. They entered into the king’s presence and bowed to the ground before him with the utmost reverence. They did not smoke or spit; they did not dare to cast an eye at the servant girls of the palace, nor did they allow a single coarse word to slip from their lips. These were clearly men of excellent character, and the king was delighted with them. However, he was a man of intelligence and he knew what people are like. So when his guests had gone, he sent his servants to ask their neighbours how they acted in the market and enquire from their wives how they behaved at home. When the servants returned to the palace, they reported to the king, “Those men beat their wives; they cheat in the market; they quarrel with their neighbours. Each one fights for his own advantage – they are not worthy to be friends of yours.” The king replied, “Let them never again be seen in my palace!”

The Nomad continued, “In the mosque, people bow to the Great King and do all they can to show how good they are. But when they come out of the mosque, that’s when the King tests them to see what they’re made of. What do you think? Prayer and fasting that fail to make a man treat his family well, what use are they? And one who doesn’t deal honestly in the market, how can he satisfy God in the mosque? This is why there’s no longer any security in the world – because people no longer know how to please God through decent honest behaviour. Instead they try to please him by reciting words and skipping meals. They’re just used to things as they are – they’re not looking for anything new!”

Amsiggel regarded them, then said, “I can’t make any sense of this. Take silver, for example. Everyone says silver is valuable, and it has a very high price. But what use is silver? Wouldn’t a steel knife be more useful – you could cut turnips with it. Or an iron key – you can open the door with it. Or even a wooden spoon – you can fill the porridge bowls with it. All these are useful things for us. But a silver ring, what can you do with it? Or a silver brooch, what good is it? It seems to me that people no longer know what’s useful from what’s no use at all!” The Nomad agreed, “They’re all accustomed to doing what everyone else does,” he said, “They just do whatever their ancestors did, following the customs handed down without considering what benefit they might have.”

The woman sighed deeply. “All this is bewildering,” she said, “Don’t you think there could be some other way to please God?” Her husband replied, “A cow tethered in a field goes round in circles trampling the earth until it no longer has anything left to eat. It tugs and tugs, and does all it can to break its rope or uproot the stake it’s tied to, trying to get to some fresh grass. And that’s just what we’re like. We long to go and explore the whole great kingdom of God but we’re tied down, afraid of what people will say!”

“You told us that the important thing is for us to do good to one another,” said Amsiggel respectfully, “but how can we know what is good? Surely there are things which are good for one person and bad for another, and there are things which are bad for one person and good for another.” The Nomad’s wife interrupted him: “I can’t understand what you’re trying to say Amsiggel!” she said. “Well, if my sister and I have an apple and I take it all for myself, that’s good for me but it’s not good for her. If I cut it and give her half, I’ve reduced the good I have and increased what she has. So, can we cut goodness in half and share it among ourselves? If someone goes to the market and buys something for more than it’s really worth, that’s a bad deal for him but its a good one for the man who sold it to him. Or if the boy watching the sheep hears the call to prayer and leaves the flock grazing on the hillside to go the mosque, people would say that’s a good thing, but it’s a bad thing for the owner of the sheep. I can’t work this out. How can we know what’s good from what’s bad?”

“And I’ve got another question too,” continued Amsiggel, “If I do something with the best of intentions but then find it harms someone else, how can I make good the bad I’ve done? How can I put it right with the people concerned and with God? For example, if I sling a stone to stop the sheep straying and it hits a child and he dies, what can I do so that his family will forgive me? And what can I do so that God will forgive me? Or if I have a disagreement with someone and punch him and then find he was right after all, what can I do so that he’ll forgive me? What can I do so that God will forgive me?”

They stayed there with the Nomads for a week, and during that time Amsiggel plaited raffia twine from dum leaves and mended all the children’s sandals. Tazzwit sewed up their ragged clothes with the needle and thread which the Woodcutter had given her. Then Amsiggel and Tazzwit left them and continued their journey, remembering the questions which the Nomad and his wife had asked.