A Meeting at the Pyramids
Chapter 3 of Richard Dell’s THE OTHER MAGUS, sees Harold, the girl called Jamila, and the little wizened bookseller, heading from the Coptic quarter of Cairo out to Giza and the pyramids. The bookseller and Harold discuss the difference between what is true and what is a truth. This might appear to be a philosophical discussion at best, but in fact we are deep into a key issue that relates to our religions and to our pursuit of spirituality. Religions are invariably based upon ancient events that are claimed to be true but may not be. These events can be considered as being fundamental to their respective religions. It can be argued that Christianity would be a very different religion if the crucifixion and resurrection had not happened. Likewise, the virgin birth of Jesus, the miracles, the feeding of the five-thousand etc, etc. can be seen as fundamental to the Christian faith.
But even if some, or indeed all, of these claimed facts were found to be true, it can be argued that those facts were, and are, actually less important than the Truths about God and ourselves that Christianity holds dear. It may not be true that Jesus was born to Mary who was a virgin. Surely the Truth that is being given us is that if the fruits of our endeavours are to be wholesome and holy, then the seeds of those endeavours – in this case Mary – must be wholesome and holy. If the mother of Jesus had been someone of a quite different and indeed less wholesome character, then we would be dealing with a different, but not necessarily less profound Truth. It would be different.
Did the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection actually take place? At a fundamental and deeply spiritual level it does not matter. Perhaps instead of a story that is true, we are offered a fundamental and spiritually explosive truth about ourselves: namely that to achieve our longed for union with God, we must be prepared to surrender our own needs and ambitions to the good of all of God’s creation. Sacrifice is here, denial of self is here. These are Truths that few Christians would deny regardless of whether they believe the crucifixion story to be literally true. My point is, what we believe with regards to the story, is far less important than the Truth we take from the story, and thereby take into our hearts and lives.
As the extract from Richard Dell’s THE OTHER MAGUS explains, the reason why a good novel can be illuminating, and even spiritually profound, is that the characters and events can be entirely made up, in other words pure fiction, but the narrative can nonetheless be important to us beyond the mere story telling. To very loosely paraphrase Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS: ‘all that is true is not necessarily a Truth; and that which is untrue, is not necessarily without TRUTH.
At no moment on that journey is he not aware of the girl. She is close to him, and her warmth seems to invade him. Sometimes, at corners, she slips and presses into him. It is like a flame: a flame that ignites a greater flame; a greater flame that has been hidden inside him for years. It is some time before he realises that his hand is resting on her leg. There is her dress and the hijab between his fingers and her soft flesh. But his hand is there. He stares at it, almost disbelieving. But he does not remove his hand. This alarms him, though the girl seems unaware of that hand of his. She is looking out the window. Suddenly she laughs at something she sees. Harold is shocked at the sound. His hand grips her thigh.
And suddenly the bookseller is turning round. Suddenly he is speaking.
‘Of course, sir, I am sure you will have guessed. I am not a Muslim. I am a Christian.’
Harold looks at him. ‘A Coptic, I suppose. Yes of course. Your alley is in the Coptic quarter.’
‘Yes, sir. Where I sell my books there are many of our churches. It is said that one of them, St Sergius, marks the place where Joseph and Mary stayed when they came with the Christ child to Egypt. It is said that they found shelter in a cave that is beneath the altar.’
‘And do you believe that?’
The bookseller laughs. ‘I will tell you what my friend says. For he is kind and talks to me of these things. I am but a humble man, sir. I can read and write, and I have learnt to love the feel of old books. I try to study them too, when they are in my care. But I am of no importance. Yet still my friend shares tea with me and talks with me of these things.’
‘And what does your friend say to you about Joseph and Mary and the Christ child?’
‘Ah. My friend is very wise, sir. He speaks to me of truth. And he also speaks to me of things that are only true. When I ask him whether that particular legend is true, he just smiles. He tells me that whether the legend is true or not is of no importance. He tells me that because so many have believed it to be true, it has become a truth. He tells me that truth is greater and deeper than something only being true. He tells me that a thing being true is of interest but is not necessarily important. A thing being true is for the mind. That is what he tells me, sir. He also tells me that truths are for the soul. Is this something that you yourself might understand, sir?’
Harold nods. He looks down at his hand. Still it holds the girl’s leg. He can feel the warmth of her thigh through the hijab and dress. It is true, he muses, that his hand is on this girl’s leg. But that fact speaks only of a greater truth. A truth that is all about himself. He wonders what awaits him at the Great Pyramid. It might be the girl herself. Whatever might turn out to be true, what awaits him will actually be himself. And then a great truth will open before him. But he is not sure if he wants to discover that great truth.
‘Can you explain it to me, sir?’ the bookseller asks.
Harold runs his hand along the girl’s leg. The girl eases herself against him. It is a sort of melding that he has never experienced before. He had been close to his sister. But it had been emotional and intellectual. Never physical. This is an entirely new experience. He brings his arm up. For a moment she shifts away, thinking he has rejected her. But then he brings his arm around her shoulders. Now she nestles against him. He feels her head rest against his neck. He feels her breathing on him. And he feels, in the fires, a deep contentment: and also a deep longing for her.
‘I can explain,’ he says, surprised at his own voice. It is so much deeper. It feels to him as if it is filled with the girl’s breath. And with his own need.
‘Ah,’ the bookseller says. ‘That is why you were the one my friend was expecting.’
The girl has placed her hand in Harold’s hand: the hand that is draped across her shoulders. Gently he clasps it. He feels her fingers tighten against his. He feels a cycle of warmth flowing between them: through his hand that rests on her thigh, then re-entering him through her hand that is held in his. He feels the warmth circling backwards and forwards. An alternating current, he thinks. He starts to explain the difference between truth and something being true. And as he does so, the circling warmth that first arouses him, settles into a flow of reverence. This too is new to him.
‘You have read novels?’ he asks.
The bookseller’s eyes brighten. ‘I have, sir! I have read Arabic tales. And the great stories in the Urdu tongue that have been translated into Arabic. Also, sir, I know the tales of your Miss Jane Austen.’
‘Indeed, sir. These I have not read myself. My friend is like you, sir. In fact, he is in very many ways like you. He is a man of many tongues. He reads English very well. And he has translated Miss Austen’s stories for me. They are very fine stories, sir. I live a simple life and have simple needs. But I am a man who is in love, sir.’
The bookseller laughs. ‘Of course, sir. I am in love with Miss Elizabeth Bennett!’
Harold laughs too. The girl shifts her head and peers up at him. He can see in her eyes that she likes the sound of his laughter.
‘The story of Miss Elizabeth Bennett is not true,’ Harold says. His voice is all but unrecognisable to him. It is a voice he has never heard before. It is older. It is a part, he realises, of himself that is yet to be. And it is a part of her. She has bent her head to his hand. She is kissing it. He feels her lips on his skin. That soft touch fills him with an ecstasy that has him turning to her and burying his face in the black tangle of her hair. He kisses the top of her head, and he knows he is crying. But he is not sure why.
Harold lifts his head, keeping his face turned from the bookseller. He does not want him to see his tears. But the bookseller is not only simple, he is a man of sensitivity. He has shifted back to face the road.
‘None of the characters in Miss Jane Austen’s story are true,’ Harold whispers. ‘Mr Darcy has never existed. There never was a Lady Catherine de Burgh. But all that happens in the story speaks to us of truth. Of love and compassion. Of pride and greed. Of honour and deceit.’
Again the girl kisses his hand. Many times she kisses his hand. The softness penetrates him more than hard steel ever could. In return he kisses her head, his mouth buried in her hair that no longer smells of the brothel, but seems to be quietly perfumed as a garden upon the Nile might be perfumed. He watches the pyramids slide past the sand-weathered houses of Giza. How, he wonders, can the girl not be his destiny? She must be! Nothing else could make sense!
The cab has turned left. It bumps along a rough track. He holds the girl tight. Her mouth remains pressed against his hand. The two largest pyramids are ahead of them. Something awaits Harold. But he does not want this journey to end: the girl’s body pressed into him, the flow of warmth between them. Suddenly he realises it has gone beyond the physical. He feels a deep and harrowing spirit of wellbeing. This girl, this Jamila, has not only awakened the physical in him. She has opened up the physical as an offering in him. An offering to his mind and his feelings and his heart. Never has he felt so at peace, so complete. Not even in childhood. Not even on summer days on Hampstead Heath with his mother and sister when childhood was endless and innocent of trouble.
The cab has stopped. The bookseller is getting out. But Harold does not want this elongated moment with Jamila to end. He does not want to break the spell. But now she brings her lips from his hand. She stares up at him. He sees love ...