On Dream Mountain
Editor’s note: Lonely Planet recently published an extraordinary collection of original tales, The Lonely Planet Travel Anthology, celebrating both the rigors and the life-changing riches of travel. The enchanting story below, by Morocco-based author Tahir Shah, is excerpted from that collection. Shah is the author of The Caliph’s House, In Arabian Nights, and numerous other acclaimed works.
The journey ended in a story.
Not the kind of story you hear any old day.
But a tale conjured from the farthest reaches of fantastic possibility—a kind of sci-fi grimoire….
A tale that slipped out slowly from between the lips of Mustapha Benn.
In the dozen or so years that I have lived in Morocco, I have heard all manner of stories.
Stories of Jinn, afreets, and of princesses locked in enchanted towers.
Stories of honour and chivalry, of lost hope, destiny and enlightenment.
Stories about stories.
Some of them are true or, rather, are presented as a form of truth. Others are clearly fiction. But the ones I hold most dear are those which are a hybrid of the two.
A blend of fact and fantasy.
Through a primitive alchemy of their own, they suck you in. Seep into your bones. Sing to you. Seduce you. Torture you. Enthuse you. Bewitch you.
All the while, they effect the listener—in the most profound way.
Hear the story told in the right conditions, by the right person, and it changes you—from the inside out.
That is how it was with the tale told to me on Dream Mountain by Mustafa Benn.
But, before the tale could begin, a zigzag of raw adventure was necessary.
A journey as unlikely as the tale itself.
It began a little before dusk on a day of heavy winter downpours. The air had been rinsed and rinsed again, the ground beneath it pooled with puddles and mud. There was a stillness, as though the world were locked in limbo between evil and good.
I was standing in the slender lane outside my home in Casablanca, a house said to have once been infested with evil Jinn. I can’t quite remember what had lured me out. But the reason was unimportant. What mattered was that my feet were standing there when the dim shadow of a man approached.
In Morocco, people believe that the future is written. You can bob and weave your way through life but, ultimately, fate prevails. There’s nothing you can do about it. Indeed, they say that the harder you try to evade what is destined for you, the faster it will grab you.
The strange thing about fate is that you never quite know how or when it will strike. A chance encounter or random phone call can lead to a door opening—one that was invisible only moments before. In the same way, any amount of preparation and planning can lead to a dead end.
The shadow advanced fitfully.
First along the whitewashed wall, then over the mud, which stretched from my front door until the road a good distance away.
I watched it, taking note of the way it moved.
So preoccupied by it was I, that I failed to notice the man to whom it belonged. It was as though the shadow had a presence of its own. As if it were unconnected to anything by itself.
Six strides or more before reaching me, the man gave greeting in a low muffled voice. Before I knew it, I had replied—“Wa alaikum salam. And peace be upon you”—affirmation that he had come as a friend and was to be received with hospitality. His face and clothing were as worn out as the voice.
Tired watery eyes.
Skin as tough as elephant hide.
A nose sloping ungraciously to one side.
An old jeleba robe patched and patched again.
We stood there for a while in silence.
After all, a man who comes in peace needs no reason to visit.
I was about to say something, when the man held out a clenched fist. Not in anger but in friendship. The fingers were curled up, as though gripping something—a gift.
Squinting in the approaching darkness, I leaned forward.
The fist slackened and the fingers drew back, revealing a dark leathery palm.
An inch across, a round object was sitting upon it, like an island surrounded by a flat furrowed sea.
About the size of a walnut, but oval in form, it was red on one side and black on the other.
“Take it,” said the muffled voice. “It is for you.”
As anyone who has made their home in Morocco knows, a favor may not be asked until a gift has been presented and received. The gift may materialize in the shape of an object or an introduction, or even a fulsome line of praise. What matters is that the act of giving is completed before a request is made.
It was for this reason that I had become weary of receiving unsolicited favors or gifts—especially from strangers. In more usual circumstances I would have politely declined. But there was nothing usual about that evening, or the guest who had arrived.
This was made clear a moment after the seed had been revealed. Our guardian happened to be brushing past just as the large oval seed was being offered.
Never one to be given to emotion of any kind, he clasped a hand to each unshaven cheek, his lower jaw hanging down, mouth wide open in stupefaction, and eyes wide.
“An honor,” said the guardian, choking for breath.
“A seed,” I said.
“A special seed,” corrected the muffled voice.
We repaired to the garden and sat on damp stools.
Many pots of sweet mint tea followed, poured into glasses little bigger than thimbles. There was much conversation, most of it garbled and indistinct. My ancestors were praised, as was my health, and that of my family and friends. The visitor’s hand threw a few grains of incense onto the embers burning in the brazier. Pungent smoke took me back to travels far away.
Now clenched in my own fist, the seed seemed to tingle as the tea was drunk, and the conversation made.
Occidental training urged me to ask whether the object had a purpose. The old man grinned at the question, his mouth an uneven chequerboard of black and faded white.
“You will know its use when you have found it,” he said.
“But shall I plant it?”
“If you wish.”
“What will it grow into?”
“It is not that kind of seed.”
“Not a plant?”
“I don’t understand.”
The fingers which had first placed the object into my own, blurred as they waved left, right, left.
“This is the seed of a journey,” said the muffled voice.
“A journey to where?”
The visitor shrugged.
“The destination is not important.”
“But how would I know when I have reached if I don’t know where I am going?”
Again, the grin came and went.
“By trusting,” said the man.
“Trusting in what?”
“Trusting in the seed.”
Since earliest childhood I was raised not to think too much. My father used to say that deliberation stifled possibility, just as it slayed the chance of real adventure.
Instead, he would reward me for sipping from the cup of spontaneity, and for following my gut.
Even though my desk was piled high with writing work, and my diary packed with obligations, I felt a calling—the kind that can’t be explained, except to those who have felt it themselves.
It was deep in my bones.
The frenzied gnaw of anticipation.
The desperate urge to travel.
The need to set off without delay.
So, next morning, I packed a small bag, stuffed the red and black seed into my pocket, and found myself in the lane outside my home. Our guardian was sweeping the mud with a dried palm frond. He said that the visitor had stayed up late swapping stories for hospitality. When I asked where he had gone, the guardian looked me square in the eye.
“He will be waiting for you,” he said.
“You mean, here at home … when I get back?”
The guardian cocked his head to the side.
“No, not here.”
“At your destination.”
I rolled my eyes and, pining for a world that was black and white, I set off.
A journey without planning followed.
Not once did I ask directions or pull out a map. Nor did I give any thought to why I was travelling, or where I was going. From time to time I would remove the seed from my pocket, weigh in it in hand and close my eyes.
It may seem far-fetched, but it was as though the little object had a presence. As if it knew that I was on a journey—that it was both my travelling companion and my guide.
Whenever I wondered which fork in the road to take, I would grasp the seed, close my eyes, and would feel the answer seeping in through my skin.
Through days and then weeks I roamed the kingdom.
During that time, I encountered people and places that changed me in a deep down way.
At a grim café in the backstreets of Tetouan, I met a musician who was missing three fingers and a foot. He played a crude violin that he himself had made. As he played, he sang, a deep guttural lament of lost love and forgotten hope.
Once finished with his performance, he hobbled over, sat down beside me, sipped a café noir, and explained he had always dreamed of going away to sea. He longed to witness the sunset with nothing but water all around.
“We are close to the Mediterranean,” I said, “and so your dream is surely an easy one to arrange.”
The musician seemed glum.
“I will tell you a secret,” he said.
“The fear that prevents me from ever getting in a boat.”
“Are you afraid of drowning?” I asked.
The musician shook his head from side to side.
“No. Something much worse than that.”
“Do you promise to tell no one?” he said. “For if it is spoken, a Jinn will surely hear it and taunt me.”
Leaning over the scuffled tabletop, the musician winced.
“I’m very fearful of fish,” he whispered.
The musician drained his glass and drifted away.
When he was gone, I took a bus southward, into the Rif, the thought of ocean sunsets and fish in my mind.
After zigzagging through small towns and villages, I came to a hamlet perched on the side of a cliff.
At a tea stall there, I found a farmer with sad mournful eyes and a great shock of white hair. He was bemoaning the loss of his favorite donkey. Having strayed down a steep hillside, the creature had missed its footing—and had tumbled to its death. The farmer said his life would never be the same, that the donkey had been his closest friend.
In a village beyond, I came across an American woman called Joanie. She walked barefoot and was utterly broke, had a knotted mane of dreadlocks down her back, and the kind of glazed look of someone on a spiritual quest. She had difficulty in remembering the basic details of her past, as though the quest had forced her to shun her own history—like a snake sloughing its skin. The only thing she wanted to speak about was a glade deep in the Moss Forest.
When describing it, Joanie’s face was illuminated as if touched by angelic light. Her breathing deepening, she recounted how it was the most enchanted spot in the entire world. Despite my asking over and over, she wouldn’t reveal the location of the forest. All she would say was that a traveler ripened by adventure made discoveries to which raw eyes were blind.
My own journey continued.
Through days and nights I traveled, the red and black seed never far from my thoughts or my hand.
No plan or map to steer me.
Nothing but my gut as guide to a journey of unending possibility.
At the edge of a desert track, I met a lean lopsided shepherd wearing a talisman crafted from a nugget of amber. The size and shape of an apricot, it was etched with the ninety-nine names of God.
In a grove of wizened olive trees, a throng of schoolboys mobbed me, begging for chocolate and for pens.
At a truck stop on the margin of a lake of uncertain name, a man tried to sell me a wooden box. It was half full of dry sand. He promised that each grain would make a wish come true.
Leaving the box for another traveler, I kept going.
In Marrakech, I met medicine men and magicians, street-side dentists who doubled as barbers, and on the flat pink plain beyond, a clutch of little boys swinging squirrels around and around on strings.
I saw villages fringed in palms, and camels chewing their cud in the shade. And goats in trees, feasting on argan nuts. And skeins of freshly dyed wool, hanging to dry in the blinding winter light. And mounds of dampened mint destined for thimble-sized glasses of tea. And children skipping along craggy paths on their way back home from class. And ferocious guard dogs with crazed maniacal eyes. And towering cork oaks harvested for their bark. And neat rows of fossils laid out for sale on twisting mountain roads. And chameleons sunning themselves on boulders as old as time.
Some nights I slept in ramshackle hostels—or rather tried to sleep—tossing and turning against the riotous din of young men buoyed by drink and lust. On other evenings, I lay on flat roofs, or beside streams, or on desert sands—and watched the heavens as they turned.
A canvas of galaxies and stars.
Like a handful of salt cast over a black tiled floor.
There is nothing so wondrous as lying out undisturbed on the side of a small spinning planet, as it races through space and time.
Nothing, that is, except for the kind of surprise that only unplanned travel can bring.
The kind of surprise that changes the way you see what you think you know.
Bordered by an ocean and a sea, Morocco is a land of endless deserts and forests, of snowcapped mountains, ancient walled cities and open fields. It’s a realm united by extraordinary beauty, by hope and by possibility.
The jewel of jewels in the treasure trove is the High Atlas.
They rise up from the baked sand plain like the arched backbone of a prehistoric creature poised for attack. A mass of crags and secret valleys, of high pastures and oblique precipices, there’s nowhere that comes close in sheer magnificence.
Little by little I ascended.
Shafts of platinum light and freezing shade.
One blind bend after the next.
Boulders the size of houses.
Rivulets gushing down mountainsides.
The young walking on stout legs.
The old perched on donkeys, cheeks chapped and eyes lost in wrinkles.
Sometimes I took a ride in the back of a pickup. Or squeezed between others in a clapped out Mercedes as it slalomed heavenward, the gears grinding, the driver high on kif.
At other times, I walked.
Eventually, I reached a knot of low mud-built homes clustered in the shade of a little mosque and minaret. For once, the dogs were too old or too tired to bark. So, I slumped down on the ground and caught my breath.
Within a minute or two, greetings had been showered on me by the imam. Half a pomegranate had been forced into one hand and a cup of water into the other. God was praised. More salutations were proclaimed. Neighbors were called. Mouths smiled. People streamed from their homes. Laughter mixed with cries of surprise.
And God was praised again.
Once the pomegranate was in my stomach and the water had quenched my thirst, I did something which I had not done before on the journey.
I took out the seed and held it for all to see.
The villagers peered at the object, taking in the red and the black.
All of a sudden, they started to talk.
Urgently, the imam held up a hand.
“It’s not here,” he said. “But in the next village.”
“The place you are looking for.”
Not for the first time since setting off from home, I didn’t quite understand. But, having given thanks, I took to the road again.
After more steep twists and turns, giant boulders, rivulets, blinding light and ice-cold shadow, I reached another village.
More hands were shaken, salutations given, refreshments, and thanks to God. Once the pleasantries were over, I took out the seed.
Again, the villagers huddled forward.
“He lives up there,” said a young man, pointing to a shack encircled by cacti.
On my travels I have come to learn that it is sometimes better not to try and make sense of things. Like a bubble of air rising up through water, an explanation usually arrives.
That is, if an explanation is supposed to come.
So that is how I reached the battered old door and found a familiar face.
The face of the visitor who had presented me with the seed.
“Peace be upon you,” he said, seemingly unsurprised at my arrival.
“What are the chances of meeting you here?” I said, flustered and confused.
Mustapha Benn ushered me into the two-room home where he lived alone, and set about boiling water for tea.
“If you believe in possibility,” he replied, “then anything is possible.”
“Even the impossible?”
“Yes,” of course. “Especially the impossible.”
After tea, a simple meal was served, then more tea, some conversation, silence, and bed.
I woke early, my head aching, my body cupped round the embers of the fire.
Mustapha Benn was sitting in a chair near the window.
“You slept well,” he said.
“But your head feels like a hammer has struck it.”
“How did you know?”
Rubbing his watery eyes with his thumbs, Mustapha Benn let out a chuckle.
“There is a reason for everything,” he said.
“And what is the reason for my headache?”
“I don’t understand.”
Leaning back in the chair, Mustapha Benn slowly recounted a tale—a tale as outlandish as it was familiar.
It was the story of a princess called Yasmine, whose veins ran with music, and who was terrified of the ocean and its waves. She was protected from drowning by an amulet made from amber, sold into slavery by a blind magician, then transformed into a lizard and back again, by a Jinn. A herd of donkeys befriended her, taught her the language of the peacocks, and were slain in a battle with albino dwarfs. She was married to a hunchback king, tricked into slavery once again, before escaping into an enchanted forest—carpeted in the softest emerald moss. At the end of a long life, Princess Yasmine drank from a goblet of silver water and floated up into the heavens, where she glints each night as a star.
At the end of the tale, I applauded.
“I don’t know how you did it,” I said, “but your story is as magical as the black and red seed.”
My host rubbed his eyes again.
“It’s not my story,” he said cryptically. “It’s yours.”
Slipping me a smile, an uneven chequerboard of black and faded white, Mustapha Benn put a log on the fire, and brewed a pot of tea.
As he stirred the water, I took out the seed and looked at it hard.
“What should I do with this now?” I asked.
My host let out a grunt.
“Take it home,” he said. “Put it in a box and let it wait.”
“Wait for what?”
“Wait for the day when you are ready for an adventure once again.”
# # # # #
Discover your own adventure in magical, mystical Morocco with trips from GeoEx.