Down to my last coin, in a foreign land, I roamed the alleys of the market in search of something I could not explain. Men in striped robes and turbans roasted chickens on spits, their juices glistening in the sun and their meat growing dark. Flies hovered over broken watermelons. Women poured a frothy licorice drink from metal containers. An old woman balanced a basket of laundry on her head as she walked, dragging two children by the hand. Finally, I happened upon a bookseller. I coughed as I entered his shop from the dust. I wiped my eyes and then scanned the titles of books written in an alphabet I couldn’t decipher. One book stood out, the only one in English. I picked it up: a dog-eared copy of bell hooks’s All About Love. I resolved to spend my last coin. When I presented it to the bookseller, an ancient man with jowls that looked like socks filled with marbles, he looked me up and down. Finally, he set the book down and said, “What you seek cannot be contained in any book.” “What do I seek?” I asked and held my breath. “Go to the shore,” he said. “Look for the Great Sheikh, Ibn El-Ajami.” “How will I know him?” I asked. The bookseller scratched his chin and said, “He sits all day and all night by the shore. The wisest of all God’s creatures. You will know him when you look into his eyes.”
I walked the shore for hours. When the sun— as they say here— reached the liver of the sky, I spied a young boy sitting cross-legged in the sand with his hands on his knees. He had perfect posture, and his eyes were closed. I approached him and asked, “Boy, could you direct me to the whereabouts of the Great Sheikh?” “I know no such man,” he replied with his eyes closed. I sighed. “They told me Ibn El-Ajami sits all day and all night on the beach.” “I am Ibn El-Ajami,” he said without opening his eyes. “You?” I cried in disbelief. “But you’re only a boy! They told me that Ibn El-Ajami was the wisest of all God’s creatures!” “I am Ibn El-Ajami,” he opened his eyes. “And I am nothing if not a fool.” I stared into his eyes. They were a dark gray, the color of an elephant’s skin. I fell to my knees. Ibn El-Ajami said, “What you seek cannot be contained in any book.” I held my breath. A man approached us carrying something wrapped in paper. He unwrapped it: a grilled fish, blackened at the edges. He presented it to Ibn El-Ajami and said, “A gift of gratitude, Sheikh.” Ibn Al-Ajami smiled and said, “Thank you for your gift, friend, but I ask you not to insult me with the word ‘Sheikh.’” He then presented the fish to me and said, “Eat, wayfarer. Bismillah.” My hunger would not allow for niceties. I wolfed it down. “What you seek,” said Ibn El-Ajami, “is not something you can buy at a bazaar. Throw your last coin in the ocean if you are truthful.” I took out my last coin and rubbed it with my oily fingers. “You want me to throw it in the ocean?” “No,” said Ibn El-Ajami. “I ask nothing of you.” “So I shouldn’t throw it.” “I’ve already said too much,” said Ibn El-Ajami. “I subsist on gifts, and offer only observations. I try to speak to each person in the language of their choosing. It appears that you have fashioned a riddle for yourself.” “What?” I said. Ibn El-Ajami closed his eyes and said, “What you do with your coin is not my concern. What you seek is in the ocean. Let yourself be drawn by the silent pull of what you really love.” I stood up, looked at Ibn El-Ajami, turned to the ocean and flung my coin into the water. My heart broke as it disappeared into the sea. Without opening his eyes, Ibn El-Ajami said, “Follow it.”
As the water pulled me down, I lost all hope. The deeper it pulled me, the darker it got. I saw nothing, and could only wrap my arms around myself to try to ward off the cold, but could no longer feel my fingers. A breath, that’s all I desire. I closed my eyes and dreamed of fire, of pink flames extinguishing the cold of the deep. At the moment that I resigned himself to breathing the water, I opened my eyes and saw it: a pink door with a crystal handle. As soon as I touched the handle, I could feel my fingers again. When I swung it open, the dark water turned a bright green. It filled my lungs like air, and I gagged as my respiratory system acclimated to the green liquid air. I closed my eyes and covered my mouth for a moment to compose myself, then rubbed my hands together. The warmth of the green water restored the color to my skin. When I looked down, all I saw was a green vastness with no floor. It only took me a second to look up, but in that second I imagined that I was alone, engulfed in a warm green void I would never escape. Yet when I looked up, I saw a butterfly-shaped sun shimmering in the heart of the ocean. Distrusting my eyes, I decided that it was not a sun in the shape of a butterfly, but rather the familiar sphere, and that something about the light’s refraction had caused it to seem like the sun had beautiful wings. I swam towards it. Someone was swimming towards me as well. I could make out that it was probably a woman. The closer I got to the butterfly sun, the more it illuminated her features. I stopped swimming and stared at the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Her skin was raven dark and her hair was tied into a long, black ponytail. Every few seconds, her hair changed color: ruby, emerald, violet. My favorite was when her hair turned golden, the contrast it struck with her black skin. I was so staggered by her beauty that it took me a few seconds to realize that the bottom half of her body was that of a fish or a dolphin. She was floating in front of me with her arms behind her back, smiling. I licked my lips as I eyed her silver scales with streaks of royal blue. I imagined myself grilling her meat, juices streaming down. What would she taste like? My mouth watered as I thought of swordfish, tuna steaks and red snapper. I could season her with rosemary or cook her in coconut milk… When she opened her mouth, I could hear her laugh in my head. “You always were consumed by your hungers, Cole Denasi.” My eyes widened. “Can you read my mind? I wasn’t really planning on grilling you, you know!” She laughed again as I stared at her teeth. “I can’t read your mind, Cole Denasi,” she said playfully, “But I don’t imagine that you’re a man of atypical thoughts.” I frowned. “I’m Nysa,” she smiled and extended her hand. A pearl bracelet adorned her wrist, which matched her fingernails. I stared at her soft black hand and my heart filled with anticipation, then I clutched it with both hands and squeezed. The desire to pepper her hand with kisses gnawed at me, but I resisted the impulse. “Come,” she led me towards the butterfly sun. “Are we going inside the butterfly?” I held onto her with my right hand. “I will show you the djinns and spirits,” she said. “They’ll be praying soon.” As we swam, beings appeared all around us and glided in the same direction, mermaids with pink, turquoise and violet scales. Close to the butterfly-sun, what appeared to be a ship hovered in the distance, but I realized it was an octopus with rubies for eyes. I gasped and breathed in water, then started to panic, but Nysa wrapped her arms around me, and the warmth of her body reminded me that I could breathe. The octopus turned and swam ahead of us towards the butterfly-sun, as if it were leading us somewhere. Another creature torpedoed in front of us and crashed into the octopus. At first, all I saw was a blur, but then I made out a yellow cube with large eyes whose pupils darted about erratically. Its two massive front teeth hindered the creature from closing its mouth. A multitude of eyes materialized across the octopus’s arms, and its ruby eyes glowed a sinister scarlet. It spread its arms as wide as it could, which repelled the yellow cube. The octopus expelled streams of violet ink, and the yellow cube sped off into the distance. “What do you think?” asked Nysa. “What was that thing?” I asked. “That was a spongefish which had come to receive the octopus’s seed,” she laughed. “I thought they were fighting,” I said. “I know,” said Nysa. “Humans often mistake inter-species copulation for violence.”
We had ventured so close to the butterfly-sun that I could not open my eyes. Nysa’s soft hand gripped me with ferocity; otherwise I might have floated, lifeless, to the bottom of the ocean. Its heat was like a cloth that someone had stuck down my throat, gagging the life out of me. But when we emerged on the other side of—or perhaps inside—the sun, Nysa, a handful of mermaids and I had arrived at the outskirts of grand city. A sky blue building with golden domes dominated the center of the metropolis, and in an instant Nysa and I were transported to its massive white gates. A voice, which belonged to no human, chanted, “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar. Bismillah Ar-Rahman Ar-Raheem.” Although I couldn’t understand the language, I could tell this was a sort of rallying cry, to assemble all the creatures of the sea. Transparent beings with human-like features, perhaps the product of a union between humans and jellyfish, gathered all around me. At first, the fact that I could see their internal organs through their skin disturbed me, but they emanated a scent—mint and lavender, perhaps? No, that wasn’t it—which set me at ease. The creatures appeared to be communicating through the sense of smell. I had no reason to fear them. They were all, including me, assembled here to celebrate something. A half-human, half-jellyfish—a humanfish?—approached me and held out its hand. I couldn’t tell the creature’s gender, or even if they had different genders. “Do you remember the mirror in your bedroom?” asked the humanfish. “Where we looked at you as you looked at yourself?” The question sparked an inkling of recognition in me, but I couldn’t quite recall the significance of it. “Remember Corey?” asked the humanfish, “How broken you were? When you cried out? The portal?” It all came rushing back to me. He was only seventeen. Tears formed in my eyes, but commingled with the ocean as soon as they exited my ducts. “Chant with us,” it suggested. I closed my eyes. Words from the Torah filled my mind, in spite of the fact that I had never read the Torah in my life. I grew still. No one could say how long I floated inside the massive sky-blue and gold building with the white gates; I had lost all sense of time. The past and the future unfurled, folding into each other like origami, and though my skin remained un-transparent, I knew I was now part of the ocean, and wept. Amen.
Tariq al Haydar's work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Offing, DIAGRAM, North American Review, and others, and his nonfiction was listed as 'Notable' in The Best American Essays 2016.