Fiction / February 2011 (Issue 13)

What the Sufi Said to the Aral Sea

by Vandana Nambiar

Mansur al Hallaj, Sufi and poet executed circa 922, continued to be tormented by his yearning for the Beloved long after his death. His killing—on charges of apostasy—had been a public spectacle in Baghdad, at which they dismembered him slowly and scrupulously, even as he laughed and sang poetry at them. A comprehensive treatise on the greatest Sufis, composed by the twelfth century mystic Farid-ud-din Attar, ends with a passionate entry on Mansur. He is erected in the book very differently from the rest and with subtle gestures of symbolism, as if to say, Look, here, the last pillar against the Deluge.

Everyone who witnessed the execution, held a little before sunset so that the faithful could depart for prayers thereafter, went away with the impression that Mansur the blasphemer, just this moment, was being kissed ardently at the portals of paradise, restored to beauty by the touch of His lips. The handsome provocateur, when they hacked his arms off, had adorned himself with the gush of crimson like a bride, smearing his cheeks and mouth with colour. The ancient plaza was stunned by the act. And now night was falling on the proud citadels of the city. The men dispersed from the square, retired to their homes and closed the street doors. Each said a secret prayer for the poor lover, their voices hoarse from screaming, as they looked out their windows at the dark gleam of the Tigris.

What is Sufism, al Hallaj? someone had asked Mansur when he had already been hacked in half, and he had answered wisely: What you see is the least part of it. The torn robes, the begging bowl, the staff of wild wood are nothing, and the other thing is all.

A few moments later, once he had given up his visible part as well, the limbs, the torso and so on, Mansur al Hallaj experienced the truth of that answer for himself. There he was, whole and unblemished and entirely soul, the way one was meant to be in exaltation. And so he cast aside his body like an old rag and went for a last walk along the river he loved. She had loved him eagerly in return. But beautiful Tigris, in the fullness of her youth, was seething with rage tonight.

"There are many rivers in paradise," Mansur said softly as a preamble to leave-taking, professing his loyalty for one last time. "But none of them is my Tigris."

"Don't go, then," the river said. "Or I will shatter my banks and swallow Baghdad."

Mansur realised she was still mad with grief.

"The moment they float your ashes on me, is when I shall do it," the river specified. Her claim had a ring of frightening certainty. And sad people are capable of the wildest things, it occurred to Mansur.

He tried to appease her, as gently as he would an obstinate child, but the river was implacable. And so he ended up staying for a while, delaying his journey home by a few days.

Soon enough, just as the river had predicted, they decided to burn his bones and cast the ashes on the Tigris. There were whispers in the darker streets and back alleys of Baghdad that Mansur, whom they had nicknamed Hallaj of the Secrets, had grown more powerful in death than he was when alive. There was nothing to do but destroy the last traces of him, and so they set out to the river with the simple urn that held his remains.

Watching them march to the banks, Mansur feared for the life of the city. All those nights he had hovered above the Tigris like an invisible bird, but could not catch her eye. She had been weeping from the moment they carried his body away, and her aloofness seemed strange to him. The truth was that he was more accessible to her now than when he was alive, free to swim in her deepest depths by anointing some rogue fish with his spirit, free to lie down on her body like a faint luminosity or a point of light that danced on her waves or merged with her as one. He could hear her better as well, for his hearing had become more subtle, and the speech of the river was subtle, like the utterances of a queen who seldom revealed what she thought.

When Mansur insisted on speaking to her, the Tigris confessed that she considered slithering away into other, untouched deserts. It was an ungrateful country, which had killed her Mansur for telling the truth, and she couldn't go on nourishing them with her succour. Couldn't drag my silks through this sullied, lightless land. Mansur watched in despair as she grew darker and leaner, smoothed her hair, and decided she had nothing more to say to the small, hungry men who came to her with their nets at dawn.

He thought her rage would subside with time, like most feminine fury. Still, just in case, he employed his newfound talent, which was to communicate with the living people in intangible ways, and left instructions with a former disciple. The youth felt inspired all of a sudden to collect the tattered robe of his master and spread it on the riverbank, as if it were a floodgate.

Mansur had been right to be cautious. The moment they scattered his remains on her, the Tigris rose up with a roar, ready to break banks, except she recoiled at the touch of his frayed tunic, left on her shores like a charm. That was how Mansur realised that she meant what she said. Also, that she was mightily unreliable. He, for his part, had been staunch in his promise to stay, at a devastating cost to his soul, but she thought nothing of devouring a civilization which had, if one thought about it, only tried to sustain itself by weeding out its heretics and reassuring the believers.

The Sufi could see into the future, and he knew that Baghdad's golden age was over. He did not have the heart to leave a declining city in the hands of a powerful, capricious girl. And so he stayed for a year, and then another, and then for several more, waiting for an abatement in the river's fury but sensing none. Sometimes a few mendicant Sufis who passed by the Tigris saw him as an apparition. He was always seen playing with the river and distracting her with his joyful tricks, and they smiled and nodded at him in gratitude.

The population of adepts, however, was dwindling. One day in late December, sometime in the thirteenth century, Mansur saw the ghost of Harun ar-Rashid. The city was in ruins that night, its minarets grown taller with the leap of flames. When Mansur saw him the king was kneeling on the blood on the streets, weeping with loud, helpless wails that nobody heard. He turned around when he sensed the spirit of al Hallaj looking at him and realised he had postponed his reunion with the Beloved for the sake of his murderers. Then the king wept even harder, kissed the hem of those sad, spectral robes with his own disintegrating lips, but in the end, like all sultans, begged him to stay forever and watch over the ashes of Baghdad.

And so Mansur stayed, thinking relentlessly of the Beloved but unable to leave a volatile river who still proclaimed to be hurt—her wrath at his execution had long surpassed the warmth of their friendship—and losing count of centuries.


Then one day, countless years later, the ashes were stirred up again. There were fires and executions again, and the streets were reminiscent of the blood-rivers from the days of Mongols. When the tumult was loud enough Mansur looked up from his endearments and saw an unfamiliar city. At last he roused himself from his focused meditation on the Tigris, from her faintest whims and threats, and cast an impartial gaze at what she had become. Poor Tigris, mother of a great world, did not in the least resemble the fierce woman of his youth. She looked right back at him with the burning eyes of a serpent, but her skin had withered, her teeth were rotten, and she could not have swallowed the littlest island of grass that floated among bridges of steel.

Mansur sighed, knowing that the long-awaited hour, finally, had arrived. He collected himself from her lap, bid a sentimental goodbye, put on his tattered robe that had outlived its purpose, and rose into the summer's air.

And now there are endless vistas beneath him, countries with their borders smudged by his soaring. Mansur looked down for one last time with a tear in his eye, and almost by accident his gaze fell on the ancient valley of Hasankeyf. He had heard from Tigris that the ageless city was to disappear next year—they were building a dam, forcing her to murder—and he was seized by the desire to visit it for one last time. It was, in fact, time for his ascension. Flower-decked canopies in the celestial gardens had been rent wide to admit him. But Mansur begged for a little more time—he had waited so long already that he could surely wait for a few hours more.

He couldn't, however, admit the truth of it to himself: during the futile years he had guarded his girl, Mansur al Hallaj had grown quite nostalgic for other lands and rivers he had known in his youth. He had been an avid traveller as a young man, having journeyed as far as India and China. Being a desert soul he had had a particular fondness—insatiable thirsts, truth be told—for lakes and oceans and the smallest rain-puddles he came across in his sojourns.

When he located and descended at Hasankeyf he came face to face with the Tigris again. She was younger and prettier here because rivers live in their own time, but mute with the horror of having to eat her own child. In any case, she refused to look at him.

At that moment, feeling the anguish of being forsaken despite everything, Mansur recovered a long-lost memory from his youth. He did not remember how old he exactly was then, but knew for sure that he had been returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca. He was still wandering wherever he could, in search of something he could not yet define. He had spent several months in a harsh wasteland in Central Asia, where the skies were arid and the sands burned, and it seemed he was on the verge of dying from thirst and exhaustion.

All of a sudden, as if a veil had been ripped from his eyes, he found himself next to an endless shimmering thing. It was the Aral Sea. A blessing in molten silver. The fourth largest lake in the world. A veritable miracle! He had wept and prayed in thanks, and spent several months on those shores.

It was the most beautiful time of his life. At dawn he would perform his ablutions in cool, aquamarine waters. He touched and tasted her, and spoke to the lithe, gay things beneath her skin that looked like glass. Carp and sturgeon and herring, leaping about like small, omnipotent gods. Drinking deep of the Aral, he himself felt invincible. She was salty, like tears and blood. Mansur the Sufi had epiphanies as he swam, naked as a child, among her endless waves.

"No one loves a woman like the ascetic," he murmured, sitting by her shore one day at sunset.

"How so?" the Aral asked in her soft and husky voice.

"For one thing," Mansur said, "my sight is clear." It was washed clean of the things that hung like swords in other men's eyes. They were, Mansur explained, like travellers dazzled by this world and blind to the other, undying one.

"Only the monk sees the woman," Mansur said. "The stupendous fact of her being in the world."

His voice quivered slightly, betraying his thrill.

Eternal Aral, in her glowing, intimidating nakedness, thanked him for looking at her. She understood what he meant to say.

"Someday," she said dreamily, "I'd like to come live in a monastery."

"We'll love you like madmen," the Sufi had said.

And so it was that after he had said goodbye to Hasankeyf and soared again into the fiery skies of Asia, Mansur longed for the cool transparence of Aral from so long ago. He had not seen her since that faraway summer. He rose higher and flew along the Amu Darya—the river that wound through a thousand dervish tales—because he knew she would take him to her, the beloved woman of his youth.

Night fell, but no moons rose. It was just before dawn when he reached, at last, the heart of Aral. It had taken much searching and many detours. Amu Darya—he had learned too late—had changed her mind sometime during these centuries. She had guided him, mutely, towards incomprehensible lands not mentioned in the tales.

There wasn't a single star in the sky. Clear-seeing Mansur, on the night of sweet reunion, failed to recognise the omens. He began his descent, slow and tender, to dear Aral's breast, light like a winged seed.

"Mansur al Hallaj, the fakir among the martyrs," he introduced himself in a low voice and with great humility, just before he touched her.

The Aral did not respond. He thought she was asleep, and illuminated himself a little—to a candle's flicker or thereabouts—so he could look at her dear sleeping form.

But she wasn't there.


In the depths of his heart, Mansur had always loved the Aral. He remembered her with a calm, ever-burgeoning rhythm, which was how a Sufi remembered a woman. She had started in him as a fond memory, and grown great and large with time—all that time. When the angels looked down in exasperation at the never-arriving Mansur, they could see the Aral inside him—she glowed so much she was visible from the higher spheres.

And yet, her annihilation—there was just a stony desert where she had been—Mansur could understand in a manner. He survived it by remembering his own mutilation. He kneeled on her graveyard as if it were hallowed ground. I was expelled from fifty cities, would you believe it, he whispered, biting back the tears that didn't quite become his robes. So, you see, there is nothing to it at all.

A cold sun was rising. After he had kissed the earth where she had been, Mansur searched for the dead lake's spirit, for he knew she must be lurking there somewhere. She couldn't have left, he decided, for all eternity.

He looked for her inside the calcified ships, locked into sand like monsters under a curse. He caressed little specks of light playing on rusted prows, hoping they would shed their disguise and speak to him. He picked up grains of sand (he knew her spirit must have diminished infinitely; must have grown very, very small) and questioned them with profound, aching love. Then, thinking perhaps she hid because she did not recognise him, Mansur appeared to her as he was in his youth, the radiant dervish with his wild ideas and the begging bowl. Then it occurred to him she must have at least heard the legend, the cautionary tale of the mythical, well-murdered Mansur al Hallaj, and so he appeared to her as they had left him—his tongue ripped off, his eyes plucked out, his limbs scattered about his body, and his severed head adorned with thick scarlet tracery in anticipation of the Beloved.

It was mid-morning now, and the sky was exploding with its hot eastern light. The arched, white dome looked down at Mansur in amusement. Mansur, in turn, swimming and floating in the air at his ghastliest best, looked down at the land where there had once been a sea.

In the end he gave up, turned to that omniscient inner eye that is the gift of the mystic, and intuited her story. It was a gory account very much like his own, all ripping of innards and draining of life-blood. The Tragic Tale of the Aral Sea, as he read on, began to sound like an ancient dervish parable.

Once upon a time she was all sweetness and serenity, all ripples, fathoms and suckling carp, but the pretty young woman was cursed with a predilection that has ruined many a feminine form from the beginning of time. Which is to say, she aspired to be an angel. Nothing could ever fatigue her! There was no poison in the world to befoul her immense crystal bowl! Everything that was venomous and noxious, all that wasn't wanted on the shores, was absorbed and alleviated, bitten back like tears/insults. Eventually, like a certain venerable figure whom the Sufis revered she was marched to the cross, put swiftly to death—end of story. It was too simple a tale to be edifying, Mansur thought. It was, in fact, a sheer mockery of a fable.

Mansur sighed, then tuned his vision even finer, and at last searched out the spirit of the Sea. The dead Aral, as was to be expected, was in a crisis of identity. There she was, now crouching under the thorns on her bed, mewing and hurting, now rising up like an avenging demon, bent on wiping out worlds. Mansur looked on in awe as one of her notorious dust storms began to brew around midday. That, too, was inevitable: everything that had precipitated on her breast—dusts, disease, rot, calamitous salts and poisons—were now swirling upwards in fury, making up for lost time. She swept; she swooped; she rained herself over whole nations in a fantastic spectacle of revenge.

Mansur al Hallaj, Mansur of the Secrets who had seen everything in this world and the next, gave in to the pleasure of weeping. He called out to her with all his love, remembering his fondest and most gentle words. He assured her she was as beloved and beautiful now as she was when they were young and free, that the season of love had remained in flower inside him like the gardens of paradise. He spoke to her as if she were still whole, praised her depths and coolness, her endless skin that turned emerald, bronze and gold as the sun crossed her path, and countless other things—again and again and again until he managed to move her. She looked down, and saw the sad mendicant whose face mirrored her own. Finally the tears fell, the Sea sighed, and sat back down on her deathbed.

Mansur took a deep breath. He stroked her sick, emaciated form, and sat down by her side.

"I have been watching over Baghdad," he said, narrating his story. "For ten centuries and eighty-eight years."

He opened his heart to her. It was, at last, enough, he said. It was, now, time for him to depart. And it seemed to him that she should depart as well.

"Come with me, because you deserve more than this world," he said. The Sufi and a good woman—let them leave for paradise, which was where they belonged. It was time the world was left to its own devices. To prosper or putrefy as it saw fit.

Let the Sufi leave; let a good woman give up on this world. And that was what happened. Shedding tears together, holding hands, the Sufi and the Sea rose through the clouds, leaving a glittering path in their wake. The more the Aral ascended the larger and fiercer the sun grew, drooping down onto earth as if from a cosmic tree grown tired of its fruit. Their last tears evaporated in that fire. Aral started to smile and looked down at her lifeless corpse—her immense, bleached skeleton—and wondered what she was holding on to, all these years, for whose sake. Mansur kissed her and kept her in his embrace throughout that revelation, and initiated her for the first time in the simple gift of herself.

Mansur looked down too, and saw a strange sight. The labourers in the street corners and mountain passes of Asia, hired for and engrossed in dismantling dervish lodges, had stopped in their tracks in shock. The ancient khanqahs, tekkes and Sufi sanctuaries which had withstood the assault of centuries, having managed to stand up with the sheer force of prayer and a bit of magic, were now disintegrating on their own. Stones flew off walls and niches and disappeared. Foundations crumbled to dust, then vanished in the wind. The final roofs were collapsing in a riotous din. As for the last dervishes wandering in the desert, they gave up their wandering the very instant they looked up, and joined Mansur in his bliss. Other adepts and ascetics looked up as well, saw the ascension of Mansur al Hallaj and the Aral Sea, hand in hand and glowing, and danced for joy. The time has come! The time for relinquishing the reins has come! Enough of sacrifice! Enough of self-flagellation for the world's sake! No more tending this garden! No more greenhousing these violent plants that stay forever infantile!

And so all the Sufis joined dear Mansur in a grand procession, until they became a storm of dancing and revelry that hid the sun with its incandescence. The frail bodies of dervishes lay scattered everywhere, in shrines blasted violently open in Pakistan and in structures hidden under other structures for fear of being found, in mountains and forests and wherever it was they had sought asylum. Sufis joined them from the heart of Iran and all of Arabia, from ancient Khorasan and Syria, from Kabul and Iraq and Lebanon, and finally the Mevlevis of Turkey saw them. They stopped the zikrs under their breaths that had been forbidden them, froze in the melancholic ceremony of their whirling, and dropped dead to the ground like so many birds. And then it became an even more luminous harmony as they rose higher and higher into the upper reaches of atmosphere and at last joined Mansur, the first martyr among dervishes who also happened to be the joyous leader of that dance.


On a deserted street in the outskirts of Herat, eight-year-old Shehzad was playing in the dry mud when he looked up at the sky. The sun had been scalding his back for some time. Then he saw something that made him catch his breath.

It was a large, iridescent construction, brighter and more colourful than any cloud he had ever seen. Shehzad was seized by terror because somehow—he had always been a perceptive child—he understood the supernatural nature of that vision, as if it were a floating city from the Arabian Nights. He watched in stupefaction as it crossed the sun and advanced beyond, and then ran, sobbing and wailing, for the refuge of his mother's arms.

His house was in the next alley, and as he ran he visualised the soft, warm folds of his mother's dress where he often hid—it was large enough to have hidden a grown man—and where he would hide now, directly as he found her. He knew she would be in the kitchen, leaning over the fire or slicing meat for lunch, and he decided to cry to his heart's content before she could wheedle his secret out of him.

Mother wasn't in the kitchen. Shehzad found her light green veil hanging from a hook on the wall. He looked for her in the backyard, then in the bathroom and finally in the bedroom, but couldn't find her. He knew she hadn't gone out because the chador she always wore when she went somewhere, with its even more innumerable folds and the little lattice, was folded neatly and left on the bed. So Shehzad went back to the kitchen in some perplexity and sat down on the mat on the floor.

As he sat there he realised he was being consumed by a profound existential terror he had never known the like of, which gnawed at his insides and made him wish for death. Yet, in the final analysis, he decided it was better to wait right there until she came back because a fire was still burning on the stove, and a pot was still bubbling among the flames.

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