Asmā stares from time to time at the horizon. How the morning pleases his mother, Asmā at this point in spring. The Tamarisk forest beginning at the edge of her village like a crown on the nearby mountain, and fading at the foot of another mountain. The exhilarating cold weather encouraging her work.
Asmā had been cutting firewood with her sturdy chopper since she arrived, but today she felt exhausted. She took some unsuccessful strikes. She swung and missed; she had been expecting that. The monthly changes occurring were wearing her down. She could sense that. As soon as she awoke, she struggled with apathy, a sluggishness lasting until she finished work. She felt her strikes were weaker than usual this year. But she continued in this state, for God’s wish is irreversible. But God is merciful, for she had her Amr. When he reached 12, he began to help her as if he were an adult. She would turn to him occasionally, especially when overworked. She’d stop to wipe some of the sweat from her forehead, moving toward him. He was collecting the severed branches and forming designated piles in order to facilitate their packing for transit on the donkey’s back.
He was used to this sort of work. Starting at the age of five, his father would place the sleeping Amr in front of him and they’d leave after the drawn prayer, with the first threads of light. Their giant dog, Hush, always followed. After the death of his father a year ago, Amr hardly noticed a change in his daily life. He suggested to his mother that she work in the field where he was master. Isn’t that the solution to the problem? For who would fend for them if he did not initiate that? He could see the contentment in his mother’s eyes as she began to carry out his work in order to support him and his four sisters. He helped her like he had helped his father, first hauling the separated branches outside of the forest. Then, he’d remove all of the leaves and break the wood into segments, each piece ranging between one to two meters.
When Amr had scrutinized all of the brushwood, he fastened the load on the back of his elderly donkey, a beast who’d seen the best hours of his day. In the infinite forest of tamarisk trees, he’d enjoyed herbs of the appetizing, lush springtime. Sometimes the donkey squawked, resting while the younger sister of Amr, Yasmine, no more than two, picked lavender, roses, yellow daisies, and the white, purple, and blue flowers that fill the wilderness. She made bouquets from them, either scattering them on the earth or presenting them to the donkey. There were times she was unable to sleep in any place close to her mother or the donkey, so she spent her time picking flowers until it was time to return. All the while, Hush hovered over her. Hush monitored everyone, especially the little Yasmine, and barked at the old donkey to make him go away.
Amr visits his sister and the donkey between his woodcutting shifts, afraid Yasmine would wander off or fall into a ditch, or perhaps that the donkey would stray and it would be difficult to find him. He’d do this despite his complete trust in Hush’s supervision over the girl and the donkey. The dog kept his red, wide eyes fixed on the couple at all times, never allowing them to succumb to danger. Nonetheless, Amr had to be sure. With certainty about their wellbeing, he entered the thick forest to resume his work. But this time he stopped against his will. For when he tried to enter the forest, Hush thwarted his effort. Barking forcefully and running toward the east and then retreating, the dog was preventing Amr from returning to his work. He grew angry with the dog and wanted to hit him, but Hush refused to surrender. He continued barking and glaring at Amr, bearing his teeth.
Once again, the animal turned his body eastward. Amr stopped, peered in the direction he wanted Hush to look at, and shifted his attention to the darkness prevailing on the horizon. Dense dust billowed in the sky. Faint, vague voices of a large group of people loomed in the distance. Amr fixed himself to the ground, waiting to discern the truth. If one looked more closely, one could see the luster of thousands of spears and swords under the glow of the sun. From afar, it looked like small pieces of metal shining and fading.
Amr remembered the conversations circulating for months among the elders. He’d heard about the Mongol attacks, the atrocities everyone feared, and the cruelty of their leader, Tamerlane, who had reached the status of Satan. Tamerlane’s savagery knew no end; women, children, and men crippled beneath him. The leader had even constructed a large lighthouse using the skulls of innocents in Baghdad. Amr started to tremble. Regaining his awareness, he screamed with all of his power: “The Mongols! The Mongols! Mom…It’s Tamerlane … Tamerlane! Come quickly … the Mongols!” His mother hastened, gazing sharply toward the east. When she realized the danger, her face yellowed. She threw the hatchet from her hand as her eyes welled with tears.
Frozen in thought for a moment, she turned to Amr and clutched his shoulders. Shaken, she mustered her strength: “Listen, Amr. We have no time to waste. You must hurry to our family and tell them to flee to the mountains. They should take their livestock and everything they can carry.”
“Our family…. you mean, my sisters and my aunt?” Amr asked.
The tears flowed. “No, Amr. Everyone in our family. The village all of it is our family.”
“Should I go alone? What about you? And Yasmine? And Hush and the donkey?”
“Go by yourself. Yes…alone.”
“But why aren’t you coming with me?” Amr implored.
“Because I can’t run like you and I have to carry your sister, Yasmine. They’re too close to us. They will see me and catch us. They will get us, all of us. But you are quick and agile. If you go now, you’ll reach the hilltop soon and can hide behind it before any soldier in Tamerlane’s army notices. Don’t come back or they might see you. You’ll reach the village before the zuhr prayer, around one o’clock.”
“And what will you do?” asked the son expectantly.
“I’ll fool them. I will mislead them, for they’re coming to kill our people and plunder our village of its food, livestock, and money. But they don’t know the way to the village and there isn’t anyone who can direct them besides us. You and I only. And when you leave, I will stay here. They will ask me where the village is located, and I’ll tell them the wrong road. They won’t be able to take anything.”
She hugged and kissed him several times, then began to look at him deeply with tearful eyes, as if he were about to travel to a very distant place. “And what will they do to you when they found out you tricked them?” inquired the boy.
“Don’t think about me, my boy. God is with me. Take,” she said, offering a piece of bread and some dried figs. She turned to him saying, “Eat when you feel hungry.”
He stored the figs and bread in his pocket, but didn’t move. He was afraid for his family and wanted to take them, but she locked eyes with him again and kissed him. She repeated herself, her voice cracking nervously: “Go, son. Hurry. Don’t waste any time.” Then she turned to the dog, “Go with him, Hush.” But the massive dog started to bark ferociously, looking in the direction of the Mongols.
Amr smiled and said to his mother, “But he wants to defend you, my dear mother. He senses danger. Let him stay with you; don’t worry about me. I can reach the village before the afternoon prayer.”
She hugged him one last time, trembling: “May God be with you. Now go!” Amr took off, running as quickly as he could. Before he took refuge in the hills, he stared at them, pleading to God. At that moment, he saw the Mongols appear in the distance, like enormous black chess pieces creeping under the sheen of weapons, glorified by the dense cloud of dust.
The road to the village is long, taking two hours to walk from the Pacific, but for Amr it was less than he had expected. He was running, despite feeling tired after only a couple of minutes. When he turned around a second time, he didn’t see any of the hill, crowned by the tamarisk forest. He was eclipsed by thoughts of his mom, Hush, the donkey, the forest, and the Mongols. But he felt relief they couldn’t see him now. He had overcome the danger.
He felt a fire flaring in his calves. Het let up his walking, stopping briefly to listen to the wheezing of his lungs. It was such a racket he thought the panting was from someone else. Suddenly, he was standing on a rock, smooth and sleek, without any idea of how he had ascended it. Then he found himself falling in a gaping hole, deeper than several meters. Once he had fallen in the hole, he remembered how his mother had warned him about that hole. He trusted his mother as if she were part of the palm of his hand. How had he not paid attention to her heeding? He couldn’t say why. Perhaps it was because that damned dog had refused to come with him.
Whenever Hush saw the old donkey slacking, the dog would attack him, barking and frightening the donkey into resuming his walking. Nonetheless, Hush deserved praise for staying with Amr’s mother and defending her. If Hush were with him, he’d give him a piece of the bread and some of the figs. Will he ever see this dog again? Only God knows. Amr would give up his share of the bread for a meal or even for the whole day; the dog earned this. Sure, he is only a dog, but he is better than Ḥāmid, Taha, Qutaiba, and Abboud.
In the hole, Amr was alone with no help. He noticed some cuts on his feet and forearms, scrapes from his attempts to cling to the rocks on his descent. The hole was full of rocks, so he began to shape them into a pyramid. When he finished constructing the mountain of rocks, he climbed it, but blood poured from his fresh wounds. The pain was so intense he nearly lost sensation in his feet and arms. He sat a bit to rest, rising before he had fully recovered his strength.
He resumed his journey, anxious about arriving late to the village. He imagined every wasted minute brought the Mongols closer to slaughtering his family. Even though he was physically hungry, he couldn’t eat, nauseous by thoughts of his mother, Yasmine, his other sisters, his aunt and her children, of all the people in the village his mother considered relatives. With the exceptions of Ḥāmid, Taha, Qutaiba, and Abboud, he would save the whole village. No. He wouldn’t save the four of them, those who had ridiculed his shabby clothes and prevented him from playing with them.
Ḥāmid and Taha were the best in the village at playing games with wooden tops. Amr lways wanted to play like those two. The game is simple: one of them wraps the top in thread and then firmly throws it in the circle traced in the sand. The top spins on its own, then the second boy mounts his top on the first one. If he can’t stop the top from twirling, he loses and the first boy wins.
Amr decided not to inform these enemies of the invading Mongols. He wanted to punish them. He hadn’t forgotten how Ḥāmid had shouted at him to “screw off” and followed with more such remarks: “Ha! Lumberjack wants to play with us!” Taha chimed in sarcastically: “Buy soles for two farthings before you think of asking again. This unshod can’t play with us.”
How could he save these repugnants from the Mongols? The Mongols can kill them and all of those who laughed at him and the donkey. Despite the fact that Ḥāmid and Taha are smaller than Amr, they laughed at him and talked to him as if he were inferior. Once they saw Amr and the donkey coming towards them and said, “Here comes Amr and his donkey brother.” Amr was enraged, heading for them to make them sorry for what they said. But they escaped. Now, he controlled their fates. The fate of the entire population of the village. He couldn’t listen to his mother; he couldn’t tell Ḥāmid and Taha about the Mongols’ coming.
Even with the setback from falling into the pit, he still arrived to the village before the afternoon prayer, as his mother had expected. The village roads were empty at this time in the afternoon; everyone was in their fields or shops. He tempered his speed, wondering to himself: How can I bring the news to the others? There wasn’t any man, woman, or child on his way. Exhaustion seized him. He wished he had eaten some of the snacks and slept. The cuts in his feet were aching more with every step.
When he arrived at his family’s hut, his sisters were surprised he’d come alone. They bandoned the wool they were spinning to ask about their mother and sister. He told them about Tamerlane and the Mongols, but they didn’t comprehend the danger this news posed. Not one of them knew what to do. Amr, too, was puzzled by the situation. “I’ll go to our aunt and see what she says,” Amr told his sisters. Her house wasn’t far, just a few meters from their hut. Before he knocked on the door, the smell of boiled milk and herbs emanating from the home made him hungrier. He lightly tapped, entering before he heard an answer. He saw his aunt sweeping the small courtyard with her broom of palm tree bristles. She hadn’t heard the sound of his bare feet when he entered, but when she turned and saw him, she got up, raising her hands to embrace him. She asked why he had returned from work early that day, and so he told her about the Mongols. Terrified, she continued staring at him, in disbelief, “And why didn’t your mother and Yasmine come with you?” she questioned.
“She told me, ‘I can’t run. The route to the hills is open. They will see us and capture us.’”
“How could you leave her and Yasmine, a child, by themselves?”
“She told me not to worry, that God is with us.”
Certain she would never see her sister or niece again, the woman burst into tears. And perhaps she, too, would land in the hands of enemies. She got a hold of herself, wiped her tears and hugged Amr, saying, “All right. God is with her and Yasmine. Praise God…how wonderful He is!” Then she looked at the sky, praying, “Oh Lord. Help them. Be with them.”
“Tell me, aunty, how should I inform the people about the arrival of the Mongols?” Amr asked. “My mother told me everyone is in danger. They must escape to the mountains, the people and their livestock. But I didn’t see a single person in the village. Do I go from house to house? I don’t know how to tell them.”
In that moment, a strong push opened the door. His cousin, Alwan, entered. Seven years old, he was hungry and shouting: “Mom! Where is the food? I’m starving!” But he stopped, struck by his mother’s tumultuous state, reddened eyes, and the presence of Amr in their house. She demanded her son go to the field as quickly as he could and tell his father about the Mongols’ attacks, in order to warn the rest of the farmers in the fields. She told him to return immediately after completing his task. Alwan looked at them in disbelief, and asked his mother: “Mom, will the Mongols slaughter us as the mullah says?”
“Yes, if we stay. But we can flee to the mountains and escape them. Hurry…tell your father!” she urged, and the boy took off at top speed.
The aunt turned to Amr, saying, “Come with me. Perhaps we can tell the village through the mullah.”
So they set off for the small village’s mosque. The mullah, Hatim, had just dismissed his students and was roaming in the courtyard of the modest mosque. His hand grasped a clay pitcher full of water for the noon prayer ablutions. As soon as he saw the tearful woman, he exclaimed: “What’s wrong?” She spoke rapidly, telling the mullah about Tamerlane and the Mongols. Her words shook the mullah, and the clay jug fell from his hand and smashed on the ground. He looked intently at Amr: “Are you sure the Mongols didn’t see you?”
“They couldn’t have seen me, I darted here,” replied the young man.
“Look at his feet and forearms. He almost died when he fell into a ditch,” said the aunt. She bent down and raised one of Amr’s bloodstained feet for the mullah to see. “Should we leave him like this for the others to see?”
Embarrassed, the mullah stroked Amr’s head and spoke to the aunt: “You’re right. This is our surest evidence.” Then he turned to Amr, smiling: “You’re the bravest of men, the knight of our village. You’ve become a man and are in the…”
The aunt cut the mullah off: “But is there time for talking? What can we do to quickly tell the others of the danger in this hour?”
The mullah collected himself for a couple of moments and began: “Tell everyone in all of the houses of the village. God will guide the way.”
The aunt grew angry and started to cry again, for she was thinking of how to rescue her sister and her young niece. She screamed: “Now isn’t the time for thinking! The Mongols will come in an hour or two!”
“Guide me! Now I’ve realized what I’ll do,” hailed the mullah.
“I will perform the call to afternoon prayer now, before the actual time. The people will want to reprimand me; they will come to protest my violation, and when they do, I will tell them about the Mongols.” Without pausing, he ascended to the roof of the small mosque and immediately began the call to prayer in a loud voice.
Amr and his aunt had already begun knocking on doors and informing the people about the advancing Mongols. Amr paused before reaching the door of a particular house. Pointing to the house, he explained to his aunt: “I won’t tell the residents here. Taha, their son, makes fun of my clothes whenever he sees me. Last week he was playing with Ḥāmid and the wooden top and when I asked to join them, they banished me. Tamerlane can kill those two and Qutaiba and Abboud, the others who ran away from me when they were playing that game with the ball and stick and I asked to participate.”
“They have to make fun of you,” said the aunt as she smirked and hugged her nephew. “They’re children. But you’re a man. The child ridicules everything because he’s a child; he has no common sense. You’re an adult. Did you hear what the Mullah said? You are the bravest of men, the knight of our village. The knight kills and doesn’t blink. You must alert them.” Amr took comfort in his aunt’s words. He was relieved by this decision. “Hurry,” she continued. “We’ll finish the houses here in front of us and then return to the house to collect our goods and tie them up so they’re easier to carry when we escape to the mountains.”
As she finished her thought, they noticed villagers rushing toward the mosque, possessed by anger because the Muezzin had committed a major error in performing the call to prayer a half an hour early. He was supposed to call for prayer at noon, but did it earlier, then made more mistakes when he called a second and a third time. Why does he play with the doctrine of God? Why is he doing what religion does not dictate? He is the “devout” one how dare he do that! And he is the example?
Amr completed his work and returned to the hut. He saw that his sisters had gathered what they needed for the mountains: rugs and furnishings, belongings, and food. Their aunt came in with a vessel of hot, milky porridge in her hand. She placed it on the ground in front of them, saying: “Eat quickly. After, put everything you have in sacks and bring them with you when we go to the mountain. Don’t leave a single piece of bread, a handful of flour or wheat or grits. Tamerlane’s army needs nothing besides food, so we need to deprive them of it. Don’t leave anything behind.”
For the next several hours, the people, livestock, and domesticated animals were flooding to the high, rugged, cave-filled mountains. When the Mongols arrived three days later at the village, later than they should have, everyone knew Amr’s mom had successfully fooled Tamerlane and his army. The three days were sufficient for the population to spread out into the mountains and caves; it was impossible for the Mongols to apprehend any of them. When part of Tamerlane’s army reached the village and occupied it, they didn’t find a morsel. They realized that some of the households had dumped what couldn’t be carried in terms of honey, vinegar, and fats. And they burnt all of the wheat, barley, dates, and dried fruit they weren’t able to take with them to the mountains and caves.
From their refuge in the mountains, the villagers watched as the Mongols filled their roads, quarters, and alleys, searching in vain for any living being, any edible thing; but they only found a paralyzed, sick horse left him behind because there was no medicine to treat him. There were also three scrawny chickens that had escaped onto the roads, as well as some stray cats and dogs who greeted the Mongols with intense barking. The only tangible objects remaining were the huts, empty, nothing inside.
Tamerlane’s army only stayed for a couple of hours, withdrawing and taking the road by which they had come. The villagers were wise to the Mongols’ treachery, so they decided to send a representative to make sure the army had in fact retreated. When they were certain the army had left, the village decided to help Amr look for his mother and sister. Everyone who could walk went with him: men, women, and children. Searching for Amr’s mother became the village’s task. Amr lead the group through the streets he knew better than anyone. When they arrived at the hole he had fallen into, he stopped and motioned for them to avoid the hole, lest they make the same mistake.
The people’s’ respect for Amr grew. They presented him with whatever gifts they could, the children who were once his enemies, the children that had brawled with him and shamed him about his poverty and tattered clothes, all wanted to give him gifts. Ḥāmid and Taha bestowed upon him the finest wooden tops they owned, and Qutaiba and Abboud said he could play with them anytime he wished. The village people gave expensive clothes, a beautiful white horse, and gold coins. But Amr didn’t accept any of it. He kept his simple, cobbled, patchwork clothes, running barefoot as he did when he accompanied his mother and father to work.
As he neared the place where he had last seen his mother and sister, Amr paused. He looked around, but saw no sight of them. So he entered the forest, searching for them, but again found no trace. He didn’t see the old donkey or Hush, only the footprints of tens of thousands of soldiers crushing the grass, roses, and flowers that Yasmine used to collect in bouquets or that the donkey liked to eat. Nothing of these flowers remained, but he did notice in a small patch of land where his mother would pray hundreds of red flowers he had never seen before. He’d never seen this flower in his village, or even this region. It was the most beautiful flower, bunched in a strange and enchanting way. The flowers rose like a dome about a half of a meter from the ground. He pointed to the dome of flowers, staring at the ground like he was talking to himself: “My mother stopped here. She was praying here.”
“Were these flowers here before?” asked an old sheikh.
“No, this is the first time I’ve seen them,” replied Amr.
“Then, indeed your mother is here.”
Amr sat on his knees, looking between the stems of the beautiful roses, submerging himself in their delightful scent. When he didn’t find anything, he looked up at the old sheikh and said, “I didn’t see her here.”
The sheikh broke into a smile and sat next to the young man, stroking his hair. “Read Sūrat al Fātiḥah and think of your mother and sister, my dear Amr,” the sheik consoled. “They are in paradise; they are martyrs. Look at these roses. They are the sisters of your mother and Yasmine, two blessings. No one in this village has ever seen these roses before because they’ve never sprouted from this earth. They have been irrigated by the blood of martyrs. Your mother is a martyr Amr…she and your sister. Your mother triumphed over Tamerlane. She saved us all.” Tears streamed down Amr’s face. The sheikh continued: “From this day on, we will call our village by the name of your mother.
From this day forward, it will be known as ‘The Village of Asmā.’’